Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Poetic Injustice: Little Big Men

Cody Webster stares into the camera like a man looking across an abyss of time for the soul he left behind. His shirt is as blue as the Atlantic Ocean. His eyes are as deep as the Pacific. His expression is mournful, like a Labrador retriever that’s been whipped with a fireplace poker by an intolerant master. As Webster speaks, the salt-and-pepper bristles of his goatee pierce the air like a thousand needles scraping at the skin of a balloon. All the while, Webster’s shoulders sag as if he spent his youth hunched over beneath the weight of enormous expectations, like Atlas holding up the world, and with good reason: Twenty-eight years ago, when he was 12, Webster was the star of a baseball team trying to win the Little League World Series and rescue the United States from a universal depression that wrapped around this country like a sticky vine. Today, at 40, Webster reminisces about those experiences in Little Big Men, a documentary that’s rife with the kind of overstatement and overwriting that you’ve been subjected to in this paragraph. My apologies.

Through 18 installments, ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series has ranged from engrossing and artful to interesting yet unremarkable, but it never delivered an outright flop until now. At its best, like when we look into the eyes of a thoughtful Webster, Little Big Men is casually engaging. Alas, at its worst it’s tragic, and in this case that’s the norm. The film is overlong and underfed; it has the skeleton of a story but no meat on its bones. Journalistically speaking, it either buries the lead or fails to detect it. Dramatically speaking, it makes the mistake of trying to be profound when it could have succeeded just by being personal. Cinematically speaking, it’s a crime, which is to say that it isn’t cinematic in the least. Although the straight-ahead, eyes-into-the-camera testimonials of Webster and some of his teammates from Kirkland, Washington’s 1982 Little League team recall the work of Errol Morris, the rest of the film is more akin to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. It’s radio, and overly poetic radio at that, with enough pregnant pauses to make William Shatner impatient.

Or maybe it’s literature. Little Big Men sometimes feels as if it’s a movie adaptation of a previously written work, with the original prose left in. The narrator, speaking on behalf of directors Al Szymanski and Peter Franchella, articulates all the points that the camera should have made but failed to capture or, worse, never attempted to convey. As if to make up for the documentary’s lack of cinematic expressiveness, the narration is both incessant and excruciatingly repetitive, as in this indicative passage: “Boyhood dreams are supposed to fly high and far, soar beyond reality’s reach. But those innocent visions are haunted by a beast, a nightmare figure, lurking softly in the shadows.” To be honest, I didn’t know one could “lurk softly.” Then again, I was also under the impression that the word “whether” was a tool for exploring two alternatives, and if so that would render the following narration grammatically curious: “Funny how a lifetime eventually becomes nothing more than bits of memorabilia and mementos, whether it’s snapshots tucked away in a dusty corner, forgotten, there’s no slowing the sand once it begins to slip through the hourglass.” Is it me, or does it feel like something’s missing from that sentence? Not to mention, I don’t think it’s correct that “a lifetime eventually becomes nothing more than bits of memorabilia and mementos.” Of course, I don’t think this nugget of narration is accurate either: “Words work best when used as guideposts, in an oath or pledge. They chalk the lines that mark the field of fair play, pointing the way to what truly matters while compelling us to reach for what could be. But those same words can carry a cruel edge, become a reckless blade capable of damage unintended, when used to quantify the quality of an adolescent dream, catalog the content of a child’s heart, or to simply cause pain.” Huh?

It’s as if Szymanski, who based on the “30 for 30” website appears to be the principal director, is trying to make a minor moment in sports history into a biblical event by embossing each scene with consequence and verse. “As the ‘70s bled into the ‘80s, our country was in crisis,” the narrator says near the start of the film. “An oil crisis; gasoline rationed at the pump. A crippling recession. Professional athletes on strike. Olympic boycotts. U.S. citizens held hostage on foreign soil … America questioned her soul, her place in the world. The 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ was a powerful spark, a light in the dark, but our country needed more. Who would have thought that America would find inspiration running the base paths on a Little League diamond?” Indeed, who would have thought? But while America’s celebration of the home country’s victory over powerhouse Taiwan was very real, it’s misguided at best and disingenuous at worst for Little Big Men to imply it was something more, as if on par with the “Miracle on Ice,” or even close to it.

If Kirkland’s victory really was such a landmark moment in U.S. history – I was 5 at the time – Szymanski’s film doesn’t make a very compelling argument. And, actually, that’s a trend. This is a documentary that suggests it was wrong for Cody Webster to become the face of the 1982 Little League team, and then it goes ahead and makes Cody Webster the face of the film. It suggests that people were foolish to think that Webster’s dominance at 12 was a forecast of his athletic future as an adult, and yet Webster’s story is worth telling now only because he didn’t make it as a professional athlete; if he had, the movie couldn’t suggest that he was scarred by his time in the spotlight. Of course, now that I’ve mentioned it, Webster doesn’t seem to be scarred anyway, and that's also a problem. His former teammates cry for him. The film all but plays “Taps” for his lost innocence. But Webster looks back on his childhood and says he wouldn’t change a thing. “I was really good when I was 12,” he says. “I wasn’t really good when I was 18. That’s just the true reality of it all, and I was good with that.”

See, that’s profound. The soul of this film is right there in Webster’s face, in his voice, in his personal account of victory and the impossible expectations and taunts from parents he endured as a result. But Little Big Men talks too much to really hear Webster. It’s too busy building trite drama. (“They represented the United States in a game that no one gave them a chance to win. No one, except themselves.”) It’s too busy waxing poetic. (“Memories are like a morning fog, rising up at random moments to hang thick and real before slipping away under the sun’s demand for yet another day.”) It’s too busy using a few dozen words to describe what any sports fan knows by heart. (“This is where boyhood dreams run the base paths, slide into home and maybe, just maybe, raise a trophy and shout, ‘We did it! We won! We’re the best in the world!’”) Little Big Men fails because of an unwillingness to allow this Little League drama to ever feel small. Its filmmakers are too busy writing the story to spot it in front of them.

Little Big Men premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. See the archive.


Daniel said...

Great stuff as always, Jason. You bring the hurt when it is deserved, but never in a nasty way. This story sounds like it was lost in translation from the paper to the screen, but for that matter I don't know if a LLWS story was ever going to be a big hit to begin with. Sure, this year's just ended and the timing is right for the broadcast, but how big is the target audience for this? Can't we assume that most ex-LLWS participants, like Webster, are kind of "over it" at this point? And are the rest of us really that interested?

Maybe what I'm really saying is that I'm frustrated when sport is forcibly and falsely presented as the meaning of life. It could be an overly melodramatic Bob Costas opening to a divisional playoff series, a Jim Gray lockerrom interview, or even (despite my love for them) an Olympic athlete profile. Cue the piano or acoustic guitar, blur in and out, narrate with gravitas, etc. You know, squeeze the emotion and meaning out of it.

When the sports world and the "real" world really intersect, a la The Two Escobars, that's when these 30 for 30 films shine for me. But otherwise I'm not sure they should be expected to be appreciated by anyone other than niche fans of a certain sport or sports figure. That's not necessarily a criticism of this series, just of the films that don't establish that intersection well enough.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: I appreciate your comments. Truly, I dreaded writing this review. Some movies inspire rage. This one just made me sad. The ugly truth is that the narration in this film might be, in sum, the worst I've ever come across. I've quoted large sections that I think speak for themselves -- but, oh, it's so much worse with the overly dramatic voiceover -- but there are several other passages I could have quoted and didn't. To call this film anything other than a flop would be a disservice to those "30 for 30" films that weren't magnificent but that at least weren't painful. But I just hate using that f-word.

Also, I'm with you on all those moments when broadcasters and journalists force sports to be something more than it is -- in terms of the world at large or even just the world of sports. Broadcasts of The Masters are prime offenders here (and the Olympics, too, no doubt). I still remember Jim Nantz's call of Angel Cabrera's win in 2009, in which he tried to suggest that the Augusta crowd went crazy in support, when really the crowd was somber and the only people cheering were five jackasses doing the "Ole" chant. I could see all of this on my TV, but Nantz's desired narrative required that the end be more dramatic and welcoming of the Argentinian. So he spoke the ending that he wanted to be the reality. (And don't get me started on horse racing, when the commentators tell us how much the horse wants to win.) Where was I?

I think this film proves that Little League is a tremendous documentary subject. But based on what we see here, LBM should have stuck with being a story about kids from Kirkland -- sons of pipe welders and guys from the lumberyard -- who somehow beat unbeatable Taiwan. That'd have made for a nice story. Simple, sure. But it would have spoken for itself.

Anonymous said...

I just finished watching LITTLE BIG MEN and feel exactly the sadness you described. I think often the problem with material like this is the filmmaker has decided he's putting on an opera when the material wants to be a lovely kitchen-sink drama. I could feel the filmmakers pulling the material toward their desired end and constantly reaching. And, here's where the sadness sets in, they missed a wonderful opportunity to actually tell this team's story. Honestly, I know no more about the individuals involved now then I did before watching the film. I agree it's not pleasant to deride a film about the Kirkland kids, but the filmmakers need to hear an honest critique of a work which felt rushed, forced and just a bit pretentious. To put it bluntly, the work is unworthy of the subject. I haven't enjoyed all the 30 docs I've seen, but most have felt like clear visions. This one needed either more post-production time or a different voice altogether. I would like to see a version sans narration, allowing the former players to tell their own narrative. Just my two cents. Thanks for the fair review.

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon: Sorry for taking so long to respond to your comment. I really appreciate you calling it "fair." That's what I was going for.

You're so right that the film would be much improved without the narration. Sometimes it isn't even necessary. In one scene, for example, the narrator builds up Taiwan, the team that "can't be beat." The narration goes on and on. Then this is followed by archival footage in which some commentator notes 'yet another title' for Taiwan, and one of the Kirkland players compares them to the Yankees. In this instance, the narration is entirely unnecessary. It's just overstating what the filmmaking already makes clear.

What a shame.

Anonymous said...

What I was left with was that something bad happened to Cody that they weren't really telling. Very morose atmosphere and I was expecting some awful revelation that never came. All I got was people picked on him (wrong of them to do, of course). At one point he was looking at want ads and I expected him to say winning the LLWS or the attention ruined his life and he had become a ____, but they didn't do that. I did like the part about Coach Pat and that he had passed was sad. But Cody's work now is based on his having been a child baseball star (a private coaching business) so is this a morality tale? Without the revelation of the big life disaster, there was no story here. Even the title--Little Big Men--leads one to believe the point of the piece was that too much pressure was placed on little leaguers, but that was not shown. I would have liked more about what happened to these kids after their moment of glory. I was most interested in the epilogues about what careers the kids had now. A juxtiposition of their young selves with the adult selves--a Seven Up type documentary. This was kind of telling the story with weird reminiscence of various people involved with a foreboding atmosphere that never paid off.

Jason Bellamy said...

Very morose atmosphere and I was expecting some awful revelation that never came.

Anon: Agreed. Also, I think you're on to something that an Up doc approach would have been better. That way, whether the guys are scarred by their experiences or still identify with them, the film could just reveal that as an interesting "where are they now?" without having to imply drama and despair that just isn't there. Given that one of the points of the film is that LLWS stars don't go on to greatness, then let's take a peek at what they do go on to. That would have been fascinating, and potentially sobering. Of course, the narrator would have had to shut up long enough to let the guys talk.

Thanks for stopping by!

Lake The Posts said...

Jason- I just discovered this blog and wanted to commend you for such specific and candid commentary. As a content producer myself, there is nothing worse than the "didn't like it" or "loved it" without context. In particular the specificity of particular examples of both grammar and contrived melodrama were really powerful to your points. Please keep up the great work. I can't wait to see your next critique.