This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do no want to know it.The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
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My gauntlet had been run. I’d entered a month-long marathon of baseball movies and emerged victorious. To complete that task, a new infrastructure had been built – I’d gotten a Criterion Channel subscription and added a third disc to my Netflix mailer account – and like America after WW2, the possibilities of what to do with that infrastructure were endless.
Perhaps you’re wondering if I wasted this moment, squandered this unique opportunity. I did not, my friends. I did not. What followed was a beautiful period filled with movie after movie after movie.
As such, I can hardly get to everything I watched, or even everything I enjoyed, but here’s a sampling of my favorites – of various eras and genres – over the last month.
First, all the stuff I’ve been revisiting:
Good news, everyone, Seven Samurai is still a masterpiece.
It doesn’t matter how many times I rewatch them, Kurosawa’s films still have the power to amaze me. His technical perfection and groundbreaking style inspire genuine awe, yet they were always in service to story and character. His films are rooted very particularly in Japanese history and life, they critique and comment on very specific parts of his culture, and yet they are timeless and universal. He should be canonized with history’s greatest artists.
Bonus fact: Toshiro Mifune, a highlight of the film and one of the greatest actors and film personalities of all time, would have turned 100 in April.
Again and again, His Girl Friday is about as much fun as any movie I’ve ever seen. This is the rhythmic, dizzyingly paced, perfectly delivered dialogue by which all the rest should be measured, and I love every word. The film is also the gift that keeps on giving, as it’s in the DNA of so many of my favorite things that came later. My favorite sort of comedies and dramedies exist because of this movie.
It’s also objective fact that no one will ever play a lovable cad better than Cary Grant.
Em and I are also continuing to rewatch our way through the MCU.
There were certainly some duds along the way, but I’m so impressed by how high the highs were. I mean, even if we only talk about Phase Three, Black Panther, Winter Soldier, Civil War, and Homecoming are genuinely good movies, and Thor: Ragnarok is firmly entrenched as one of my favorite films of all time.
And we haven’t even gotten to Infinity War and Endgame! The MCU experiment was unprecedented, and to be honest, sticking the landing was damn-near impossible. I’ve made no secret of my delight in the remarkable job the Russo brothers did in delivering a finale that was better than even the most optimistic of us could have expected. I’m probably a broken record at this point, but being in the theater for Endgame opening night, with the communal energy and joy of that moment, was a singular highlight of my entire movie-going life. [The cut to black at the end of Inception and Cap picking up Mjölnir in Endgame are my two favorite audience reactions I’ve ever seen.]
And now for the new [to me] stuff I watched:
I’d write about how glorious Jackie Chan’s Police Story is, but Tony Zhou already covered Chan’s brilliance far better than I ever could.
Aaaand with my new Criterion Channel subscription, I watched Kihachi Okamoto’s gorgeously shot samurai film, Sword of Doom. It’s an episodic story following a despicable, amoral, seemingly unbeatable ronin.
Toshiro Mifune isn’t in the film for long, but he makes every second count. [Have I ever mentioned my love for Mifune before?] His long ‘one katana against a mob of assassins’ fight scene is glorious – and somehow only the third best fight in the film.
And speaking of the film’s fight scenes, Sword of Doom’s best scene – its worth the price of admission on its own – must be the reason we eventually got that long, crazy, one-shot hallway fight in Oldboy.
The film’s final frame is brilliant, and it turns out, completely accidental. The movie was originally intended to kick off a series that never materialized, and so the film ends frozen in suspense and ambiguity that works beautifully from a narrative standpoint, and yet was entirely unintended.
Speaking of gorgeously shot films, I finally got around to seeing Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. It’s amazing.
Even after all the praise the film received, I still had no idea what it was actually about. Which is the perfect way to watch it, so I won’t provide a synopsis. Just know that every facet of the film is damn-near perfect, and the film has almost as much hot and/or kinky sex as it does [omitted for spoilers].
And let’s all stand amazed by how Park’s tamer films are still more fucked up than 99% of world cinema.
Transit wasn’t on my radar at all until December, when I started my yearly routine of scouring the internet for legit ‘best movies of the year’ lists. It was on many, many lists – not just for the year, but the decade – and it was easy to see why. Other than the immersive visual aesthetic, I knew nothing about it going in, and as with The Handmaiden, I’d recommend you do the same. It’s unique when a quiet drama can force you to take time to get your bearings the way Transit does, and you should just let it happen.
I should write more about these, but I’ve enjoyed watching auteurs at the top of their game: Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Kurosawa’s Kagemusha.
If you’re ever in the mood for a surreal, fucked up, beautifully photographed sci-fi fever dream, then Under the Skin is the platonic ideal.
In a world where Rocketman exists, filmmakers should henceforth be banned from making anymore paint-by-number biopic bullshit. If you can’t craft an emotionally resonant film that plays with form and genre to uniquely illustrate the life and character of the subject, could you just not?
And, if any of you are in the mood for some exciting, satisfyingly competent action films, you could do far worse than Extraction (thank you John Wick) and The Night Comes for Us (thank you The Raid: Redemption).
Emily keeps asking me to do another rundown of all the things I’ve been reading/watching/playing during quarantine. I’ve decided to finally take her advice, as that is the purpose of this blog after all. I’ve divided it into several posts for easier reading.
And speaking of reading, I’ve been doing soooooooo much of it. Let me tell you, it’s everything I’d dreamed virtually unlimited reading time would be. In a word: glorious.
Here are a few of the highlights.
Monsters of the Week by Zack Handlen and Emily Todd VanDerWerff
If you’re an X-Files enthusiast, this book is literally a must own. Handlen and VenDerWerff go season by season, episode by episode, taking a deep-dive into all the things that make the X-Files one of the greatest ever entries into the pop culture canon. A weird little show that started as an unexpectedly successful cult favorite, and somehow moved to the very center of the zeitgeist.
The writers lovingly pore over every episode, from the hilariously awful, to the ones that have stood the test of time as some of the greatest hours in the history of television.
Rest assured, they make no effort in trying to defend the overall arc of the mythology, which went all the way off rails in later seasons. But, as devoted fans know, the episodes where the show really shines, the ones that changed television forever and hold up to this day, are the isolated monsters of the week. Hey, that’s the name of the book!
The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King
It’s Stephen King, so what really needs to be said? This is the second book in The Dark Tower series, and it’s impossible not to get pulled into this eight book saga that spanned three decades between the first and final installments.
Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
I loved the story told in these two volumes. Even by the lofty standards of Taylor’s other work, it’s uniquely beautiful.
Normally, due to my massive ‘to-read’ shelf, I self-enforce a strict moratorium on book buying unless I’m physically visiting an independent bookstore. And yet, the moment I read the final page of Strange the Dreamer, I broke the embargo and ordered Muse of Nightmares. So, be warned, you may not want to finish the first book without having the second close at hand.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
Beautifully lyrical, literary speculative fiction. There’s no attempt to explain the how of the premise, just a beautiful and heartbreaking rumination on the way our memories, and our relationship to the world, make us who we are.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Paperback sci-fi of the very highest order. This one is a modern classic. A fast, super fun read.
And of course, no reading list of mine would be complete without a few of the graphic novels I’ve been reading.
Low by Rick Remender
In (perhaps) a distant future earth, after people have been pushed to the depths of the ocean after the surface becomes unlivable, society is waiting out the clock with the end of the world in sight. In the shadow of certain doom, and unspeakable personal tragedy, one woman continues to cling to hope.
This beautifully drawn and colored book depicts a world as brutal and ugly as our own, and asks us if we can still choose to believe in a better future.
“To resist the depths of the world’s sorrow, the truth of one’s heart must be honored. Even when what we are isn’t what we wish we were… or what others want us to be. Even when we want to turn away from it. When it becomes a burden. A compromised soul dies a million deaths in that final claustrophobic moment of realization… never compromise yourself.”
Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu
The second – and final – volume collecting Ukazu’s delightfully charming webcomics about Eric Bittle, a figure skater and baking vlogger whose skating skills land him an athletic scholarship to play for a Division I college hockey team.
Check, Please is the story of an outsider who finds acceptance, love, and the courage to take ownership of who he is. If you want to laugh out loud, smile a lot, and tear up a few times from pure joy, then this is the comic for you.
I also caught up on Gideon Falls, which I’ve already written about.
And there you have it, the very best things I’ve been reading while it’s actually accurate to say I have all the time in the world.
- Nine out of ten doctors agree that the average American needs more comics and graphic novels in their diet.
- Studies show that 74% of Americans are under the misapprehension that they don’t like comics when, in fact, they do.
- Research out of the Mayo Clinic points to a dangerous lack of curiosity in adults over the age of 23, making it less likely they try new things, such as reading graphic novels.
I’m glad those numbers are out there, providing verifiable proof that things need to change. Otherwise, you’d have to take my word for it.
An informed populace is our best chance at beating this thing. Too many readers who think they dislike comics just haven’t encountered the right one(s). That’s why I keep using this blog as a way to provide important information by writing about some comics or graphic novels – amazing titles like Saga or Paper Girls – for people who think they don’t like the medium.
Still, this is a national health crisis, and it falls on me to do more.
In that spirit, here are more great comics for the skeptical.
James Tyrion IV – Rian Sygh – Walter Baiamonte
If you like: sweet, laugh-out-loud funny, genuinely heartwarming stories populated by characters you want to spend as much time with as possible.
The Backstagers has it all. Magical hallways of unending, ever changing corridors full of monsters, mysteries, and backstage tech resources? Check. The most endearing, original, and delightfully weird cast of characters you could ask for? Yes. Charm for days and days and days. Got it!
The only downside is that the book’s run was far too short. When I turned the last page, I had no idea it was the last last page. I went on Goodreads to find the next volume’s publication date, only to discover that there would be no next volume. The revelation left me genuinely sad for days. I sure hope we somehow get more graphic novels with these characters someday.
Also, The Backstagers is put out by BOOM! Studios, an seemingly unending resource of amazing comics. They also exclusively put stuff out that would fit into the category of comics for skeptics.
Jeff Lemire – Andrea Torrentino
If you like: horror (think Stephen King’s more sprawling, epic titles, with some Lovecraftian flavor), or genre-bending fiction that adds up to more than the sum of its parts
Gideon Falls is relentlessly grisly and dark, with an intriguing mystery and – once it gets moving in earnest – a thrilling pace. It’s fuuuucked up in the best possible ways, and as the story progresses, it just keeps getting more and more bonkers. Yet every new twist and revelation totally works within the narrative. Each big, surprising expansion of the world comes off as deft and clever, and not a desperate attempt to keep upping the ante to keep people reading.
With serial storytelling, I get wary when it begins to feel like the writer(s) have no idea what’s next, or worse, keep jumping tracks and retconning entire through lines. With Gideon Falls, it’s clear Lemire is in total control of his narrative. He isn’t throwing out captivating but hollow mysteries with the vague hope that maybe he can figure out what they all mean down the line. [I’m looking at you Lost.]**
Jeff LeHeup – Nathan Fox – Moreno Dinisio
If you like: smart, fun, irreverent, vibrantly colored, hyper-violent sci-fi.
We’re in a bit of a sci-fi golden age in comics, and The Weatherman is a great addition to the trend.
It begins with an immature, wisecracking, food obsessed weatherman in the distant future finding out that nothing in his life is as it seems, as suddenly the entire solar system is trying to kill him.
I’d recommend you learn nothing else about this title before jumping in. I picked it up purely because it was on a staff picks shelf and it looks gorgeous. As soon as I finished reading it, I went online and ordered the next volume.
** To be fair, my beloved X-Files was also egregiously guilty of this. Fortunately, most of the episodes were Monster of the Week eps, distinct from the series’s ongoing mythology. The good to great MotW eps are some of the greatest hours of television ever created, so, unlike shows like Lost, the X-Files can’t be judged purely on whether or not it had a coherent mythology. Ask huge fans what their favorite episodes are, and you’re usually going to find lists made up entirely of Monsters of the Week.
Much has been said and written about our diminishing collective attention span. From what I hear, no one under 40 can be expected to follow a train of thought for longer than a 24 minute episode of television, and any movie that goes over two hours draws dire predictions – from studio-heads and film writers – of impending apathy from the general public.
Now, I want to be sure to stress that this idea is categorically untrue. Most of us are in the habit of bingeing more than 10, or even 20 hours of a show in a single weekend [for instance: the 360,000 households who watched all 9 episodes of Stranger Things 2 the day it was released]. And some of the best loved and most successful films of the last 20 years haven’t suffered from longer run times. I’m not talking about so-called high culture films like Scorsese’s The Irishman, the length of which was remarked on often. I’m talking about the fun films everyone went to see: The Dark Knight, Avatar, and Avengers: Infinity War all clocked in at 2.5 hours or longer. That’s also true of four of the Harry Potter films, with two more just missing that mark by less than ten minutes. All three Lord of the Rings movies were three hours long, the final installment hitting the 3:21 mark. Avengers: Endgame was three hours long, and loads of people went to see it multiple times! In other words, reports of the death of the American attention span are greatly exaggerated.
Still, true or not, the powers that be believe it to be so. So why haven’t book publishers worked harder to get people interested in short stories? The medium seems tailor-made for such a world as they believe to inhabit. I guess I’ll just need to make the attempt on their behalf.
Consider this my public service announcement: The short story is an amazing medium, and you should be reading more of them. Here are a few recommendations to get you started.
The science fiction pick – Exhalation by Ted Chiang
“Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”
If you’ve got any love for speculative fiction, you need to read Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. Each of Chiang’s stories is built on the foundation of a great sci-fi question or idea. The curiosity at the core of his work leads to poignant moments of beauty, horror, wonder, warning, and possibility. Many sci-fi writers with the same M.O. are knocked for weak characters and plot, but Chiang’s exploration of interesting science fiction ideas is overflowing with empathy. There’s always a human heart beating at the center of his stories.
Also: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury,
The fantasy pick – The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic by Leigh Bardugo
“Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.”
The Language of Thorns is a book of fairy tales told within Bardugo’s Grishaverse, a fantasy world she has built and fleshed out to great effect in six other books [the Shadow and Bone Trilogy (aka The Grisha Trilogy), the Six of Crows Duology, and King of Scars. I wrote about the first book here.]
Her writing is imaginative and rich, and her wonderful style shifts perfectly to suit whatever particular story she’s telling. The Language of Thorns stands on its own just fine, but you should absolutely go back to the beginning and read Shadow and Bone.
Bonus quote from the book, because it’s my life – “Some people are born with a piece of night inside, and that hollow place can never be filled – not with all the good food or sunshine in the world. That emptiness cannot be banished, and so some days we wake with the feeling of the wind blowing through, and we must simply endure it as the boy did.”
Also: The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke, Unnatural Creatures, ed. by Neil Gaiman
The horror pick – Full Throttle by Joe Hill
“The past is always close, so close you can sing along with it, anytime you like.”
Son of the wildly prolific Stephen King, Joe Hill is great, and his short stories are especially terrific. [If you haven’t read Locke & Key, the graphic novels he wrote with Gabriel Rodriguez, you absolutely should – even if you’ve maybe already watched the Netflix adaptation.]
Similar to those in Exhalation, each story is powered by a fun conceit, and a very human soul. There’s a secret, magical, Narnia-style doorway, but instead of children, it’s used by rich white men to hunt magical creatures on the other side. There’s a man who falls asleep on the wrong train and wakes up next to a very civilized, very hungry werewolf. And in a particularly lovely story, a grieving, aimless man takes a job driving a decrepit library bookmobile, only to discover that not all of his patrons are among the living.
Even when the concepts are more straightforward genre tropes — i.e. murderous roadside attractions, or teenagers hunted down by supernatural comeuppance — they’re elevated by his style, and the empathy with which he writes his characters. It all works, because the people populating his stories feel three-dimensional.
Also: Strange Weather, Hill’s book of four short novels.
Don’t forget creative non-fiction. John Hodgman’s Vacationland is absolutely wonderful. Or, even better, listen to him read it via the audiobook.
And you can always go with some all-time classics: The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, The Stories of John Cheever, or Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, just to name a few.
Let’s face it, aside from the crippling anxiety, life under quarantine is pretty bland. Not particularly surprising, as things are bound to become monotonous when one isn’t allowed to leave home for months on end.
Lucky for you, I have a solution: add several heaping tablespoons of Elmore Leonard to the mix. The man was an uncommonly good writer whose books, stories, and screen adaptations can go a long way in adding some flavor to your daily media sustenance.
As is the case with so many wonderful genres, crime and/or western fiction are often dismissed out of hand as hackneyed, formulaic, and lazy — judged by the bad to worst examples instead of the good to best. It’s unfair, to be sure. You should give said genres a chance, and no one has ever written them better than Leonard. His work doesn’t transcend shitty genres, so much as reveal how amazing they can be when executed well.
Leonard’s writing is razor sharp, consistently funny, and smart as hell. The pacing is brisk and engaging but not rushed, lean without ever feeling sparse. His pages are populated with the sorts of characters literature’s other private investigators, crooks, cops, cowboys, gangsters, killers, detectives, dupes, femme fatales, and sundry aspire to be.
Their appeal owes quite a bit to amazing dialogue, of the quick, uber-clever variety. Many of his characters are adept at perfectly crafted repartee, always with the perfect phrasing [á la Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, His Girl Friday]. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m a sucker for it.
It’s entirely possible you’re already into Leonardesque dialogue without knowing it, as his writing makes up a sizable portion of the DNA for Tarantino’s. As a matter of fact, the underrated Jackie Brown is an adaptation of Leonard’s novel, Rum Punch.
Where to start:
Leonard wrote celebrated fiction for nearly 60 years – with adaptations for days – so there’s a sizable catalogue to keep you rolling for quite some time. Here are a few good places to get your feet wet.
Out of Sight
If a movie is what you’re in the mood for, start here. [As of the time of this posting, it’s available on HBO Go.]
One of the great things about Leonard, whose devotees stretch far and wide, is how many talented folks have lined up to adapt his material. For instance, we have Steven Soderbergh’s effortlessly cool adaptation of Out of Sight.
Everything about this movie works. It’s fun, smart, and with all that chemistry, you’ll want to watch Clooney and J.Lo circle each other from opposite sides of the law forever.
Before Olyphant came along as Raylan Givens on Justified, Leonard said Clooney came the closest to getting his dialogue exactly right – nailing the sound, rhythm and delivery. Jack Foley – the charming, non-violent, gentleman thief – is quite similar to Danny Ocean, who we’d meet a year later when Soderberg and Clooney reteamed for Ocean’s Eleven. To be honest, I think Out of Sight is the reason we got the Ocean’s movies in the first place, which are very Leonardesque films in their own right.
[Fun fact: Michael Keaton made an uncredited appearance in Out of Sight as Ray Nicollete, a character he played in Jackie Brown for Tarantino the year before. You see? Well before the MCU, there was a Leonardverse.]
Other notable film options: Get Shorty, and the aforementioned Jackie Brown.
If television is the route you want to take, go with the unexpectedly amazing neo-western, Justified — a show I’ve written about many times on this very blog. It gets my vote as the best entry point into Leonard’s work. It’s the platonic ideal of Leonard adaptations, and the neo-western genre in general. If you haven’t binged through it yet, you now have all the time in the world to remedy that. [As of the time of this writing, it’s available on Hulu.]
The writers revered Leonard so much, working so hard to live up to his work, that they created one of the best — and most criminally underseen — shows of all time. That’s all the more impressive in light of the fact that the entire show was born of a single short story, which was directly adapted for the pilot episode. Everything that came after the pilot was brand new, and yet the writers produced six seasons of brilliant television – and a show that Leonard praised unequivocally, until his death in 2013.
It’s the best entry point into the Leonardverse, largely because of the marriage between great writing and pitch-perfect performances. Leonard went as far as to say that Olyphant’s take on Raylan Givens was perfect. “When he delivered the lines, the ones that I wrote,” Leonard said, “they were just the way I heard them when I wrote them.”
And it’s not just Olyphant. Walton Goggins is equally great as the show’s big bad. He’s the sort of character you want to hear speak, even if he’s got nothing much to say. The show only gets better as season-specific characters start showing up, played by such luminaries as Mary Steenburgen, Sam Elliott, Margo Martindale, Garret Dillahunt, Patton Oswalt, Jonathan Tucker, and a young Kaitlyn Denver before she went on to star in the critically lauded comedy Booksmart. And that just scratches the surface.
I’ve recommended Justified again, and again, and again — it would seem to no avail, at least amongst my friends. I’m telling you though, just give it a few episodes and I think you’ll love it.
[Fun fact: Goggins’s Boyd Crowder is one of the very best things about Justified, which leads us to an interesting phenomenon in the Tarantino-Leonard ecosystem. Once an actor proves themself capable of nailing Leonardesque or Tarantino-style dialogue, they’ll begin jumping back-and-forth between the two. Goggins went on to appear in Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight after his amazing performance on Justified. John Travolta played Chili Palmer in Get Shorty the year after appearing in Pulp Fiction. Clooney went on to star in From Dusk til Dawn after Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven. Olyphant was later cast in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. It takes a specific skill set as an actor to get it right, and when one does it well, they can’t seem to stop.]
When the Women Come Out to Dance, aka, Fire in the Hole
And if you want to go straight to the source, why not read some of his actual work? If you do, a book of short stories is a good place to start. I’m actually surprised short stories aren’t a more popular medium [a topic I’ll revisit soon]. If nothing else, it can be a great introduction to a writer’s work. When the Women Come Out to Dance (aka, Fire in the Hole), is a one stop shop to show the range of Leonard’s stories, and give you a sense of his style in bite sized portions. A common, and well-deserved, knock against writers in the genre concerns the lack of strong, well-drawn, three-dimensional female characters given interesting things to do.When the Women Come Out to Dance turns that on its head, full of delightfully crooked, interesting women, up to (mostly) no good.
Once Justified became popular, the book’s original title was changed to Fire in the Hole, as that’s the story introducing Raylan Givens to the world — as I mentioned above, the pilot was a direct adaptation of that story, the only significant departure being Boyd Crowders’s fate.
And there you have it. Now you have absolutely no excuse not to try a taste of considerable amount of content Leonard produced during his prolific career.
At this point, we all have different things helping us get through the day. This is one of my things.
“Excuse me, but what the hell’s going on out here?”
“Well, Nuke’s scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man’s here. We need a live … is it a live rooster? We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose’s glove, and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. That about right? We’re dealing with a lot of shit.”
You don’t have to know me that well before you realize I’m not one to speak in absolutes, especially when it comes to cinema. I’ll praise the things I love, I’ll critique the stuff I don’t – so long as it’s in the right context – but I’m allergic to any claims that make our experience of the the world narrower. Five greatest this and ten worst that is bullshit clickbait, not a way to engage film — or life for that matter. People can continue to ask me for my five favorite movies until the end of time [it happens constantly], but I will never give a straight answer. The parameters of the question are nonsense.
And yet, while I live my whole life by the creed above, I have absolutely no problem saying that Bull Durham is the greatest movie that will ever be made about baseball. It’s the exception that proves the rule.
Bull Durham is one of those rare instances where a story embodies the essence of what it depicts. The movie isn’t about baseball, it is baseball. It reverberates with the same heartbeat you’ll hear deep down – if you can tune out all the extra bullshit – at the core of the game.
Bull Durham reveals that baseball is more than a sport, it’s a religion. The faithful worship a deity that is romantic and holy, but unvarnished, profane, and steeped in the ordinary dailiness of life. The articles of faith demand a streak of irreverence in the devotions of the faithful.
It should come as no surprise that it was written and directed by a man who played minor league ball for five years — not some casual layperson or weekend warrior, but a true believer, properly initiated into the faith.
Players are among the faithful, many as devout as the impassioned supplicant of any other god. After all, religion is humanity’s attempt at finding some level of agency and order in a chaotic universe. You can’t control droughts, plagues, natural disasters, or the mystery of death, but maybe you can negotiate with the higher powers who can. Which is what makes it a direct analogue to baseball.
More than in any other sport, a ballplayer isn’t in control of the outcome of their actions. The variables in baseball are crueler. A perfectly executed pitch can result in a weak, broken bat single that finds a hole, driving in runs or breaking up a no-hitter. The hardest hit ball all day may become just another zero in the box score. It’s why ballplayers are by far the most superstitious athletes in the world. The game, like life, isn’t fair. It’s a game of hanging breaking balls and missing your pitch; not a game of inches, but fractions of an inch. On every single pitch, a slight, barely perceptible tilt in angle separates success from failure. Greatness and mediocrity are separated by a razor’s edge.
Crash Davis — philosopher, poet, and career minor leaguer — explains: “You know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. Twenty-five hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points, OK? There’s six months in a season. That’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week, just one, a gork, a ground ball — a ground ball with eyes! — you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”
Playing a game like that for a living, it’s understandable one would seek the rituals and offerings that might appease the gods.*
And if baseball is a religion, Crash Davis is high priest. Nuke Laloosh** may be a force of nature, an insane talent, but he may pitch an entire, bright but relatively brief career without ever truly understanding the game. But Crash pours over the minutia in order to read the meaning – quite literally – between the lines. He lives and breathes the game, putting in the work everyday well after it’s clear that those twenty-one days in the show are all he’s ever going to get.
But Bull Durham isn’t just a hymn to the players who understand the true holiness of the game, it’s just as much a hymn to the zealots, the happy few whose love of the game defies the boundaries of reason. There are plenty of baseball fans, even rabid fans of their clubs, who remain reasonable in their reverence. Perfectly ordinary folk. And then there’s the sort whose devotion runs deeper than that, to a degree that looks ridiculous to those outside the fold. It gets to the point where our belief is barely metaphorical anymore. Deep down, we almost believe that baseball is a key to unlock the secrets of the universe.
Annie and Crash reflect this faith back to us. And like us, they see the world differently than most. It’s no coincidence that Shelton has written both of these characters as philosophers pondering the mysteries of the universe, as readers of fiction and poetry who speak in grand romantic metaphors. That’s the sort of soul most likely to fall this deeply in love with the game. You’d be hard-pressed to find this particular brand of disciple who wasn’t. [That is by no means meant to discredit other lovers of the game, those who hold a deep and abiding affection that never reaches this degree of absurdity.]
You can definitely enjoy Bull Durham as a great film, even if you don’t care about baseball. It’s a well written, well-crafted film, populated with lovable (now iconic) characters, and immensely quotable dialogue. It’s sharp, well paced, and wonderfully shot — a scene that comes to mind is when they switch to handheld while we hear Crash’s thought process during a particular at bat. [I love that scene, especially when Crash tells the bat boy to shut up. Classic. I’ll laugh at it ever time.] And you’ll definitely enjoy the film more if you appreciate baseball to any degree.
But, like baseball, there’s another level under the surface for those with eyes to see. Visible to those whose love of the game exceeds rationality. For this sort of disciple, and I obviously consider myself among them, Crash Davis is our high priest, Annie Savoy is our patron saint, and Bull Durham is our blessed sacrament.
*In case you’ve any doubt that a player’s superstitions can reach religious levels, take the case of batting legend Wade Boggs as an example: He ate chicken before every game [one and a half chickens a day]. He woke up at the same time every day and ran sprints at 7:17 pm. He beat a path from the dugout to third base by taking the exact same route, there and back, every time. He drew the Hebrew for ‘life’ in the batter’s box before every at-bat [he isn’t Jewish]. He asked Sherm Feller, the public announcer at his home park of Fenway, not to announce his uniform number during introductions, because Boggs once broke out of a slump on a day when Feller forgot to announce his number. Are you sure it’s only a coincidence that he was one of the greatest hitters of all time? The dude once went a an entire season — 719 plate appearances — in which he only struck out 34 times! Something was working.]
**In a sad coincidence, Steve Dalkowski – the man who inspired Shelton to write the character of “Nuke” LaLoosh – died last week due to complications of Covid-19. He never made it past the minors, but one season, in 62 innings, he struck out 121 batters and walked 129.