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cinema:english Essay

Moneyball: Saving Stories From Storytellers

More Words, More Lies

As a writer, lately, I have been having a crisis of faith. A falling out with words, adjectives mostly, a bunch of liars, these adjectives, hate them. They mean nothing and the world is a better place without them. 

That’s the thing with words, I just abused a whole class of them and no one is going to defend them. My crisis of faith stems from a professional point of view, the truth I believe is at the opposite of what I write and I keep blocking them with words, words that don’t mean what I want to say, but words that will somehow convey what the other person wants to hear. Basically, lies. It’s the same in conversation too. 

Analytics tell the truth and self analytics tell you the truth, and when people tell you the opposite, you know they are just saying it to make you feel better. There is concern, of course, but little truth. 

So you can imagine my crisis of looking at words on a page day after day and thinking, is this the truth?

I’ll make that generalization now.

Humanity stepped away from the truth when it started to use words to make itself feel better and ever since has made the lives of professional bullshitters (often called those who call themselves as storytellers) a very lucrative one. 

Seeking Truth in Movies & Life

Humor me one more time, I would like you “feel” the crisis of faith,if you are in a career that demands working with words 80% of the time (written and spoken-speaking on phones too count) and the rest 20% of the time “socializing”, then I’m sorry it is within the profession of bullshit, maybe we can collectively calm ourselves by calling ourselves storytellers. 

Oh no, I don’t hate stories, in fact I love them, stories come with seeds of truth in them. It’s the story tellers that come with their extra words and obfuscate the truth.For the storytellers the only tools are words and not analysis. As mentioned before, analysis leads to truth. 

Adding two and two, a well analyzed story and by keeping storytellers away, will lead to a personal truth, that the story is willing to offer me, the beauty of story is that it can deliver multiple truths.  I see Moneyball as a metaphor for this higher generalization.

But there is no denying the fact that words are entertaining, they take us away from the dullness that is associated with analysis, they can make us laugh or cry, feel emotion or even make us buy a product. But it’s not the truth, nor is it a path to it. 

Which is why it surprises me, when I see Aaron Sorkin’s name on the writing credits of MoneyBall.

Aaron Sorkin deals with a lot of words, more words than what you thought about when you just read “a lot of words”, not the Tharoor unreproducible types, but reproducible by people with decent degrees and some degree of smugness types. 

Affectionately paraded as ‘Sorkinisms’ by those trying to up their intellectual image (and smugness), his fast paced dialogues in a professional set up has ever since given men (mostly men) wet dreams of becoming a TV news host, Navy lawyer, Facebook founder, political speech writers and heck even the President of The United States. 

Sorkin’s characters radiate with the message often found on t-shirts, “Smart is the new sexy” , except Sorkin kids believe that here smart means using a lot of words within a short period of time. And too many words, often amount to nothing. 

Humor me again, four of the five professions mentioned are professional bullshitters, I mean storytellers,no wonder these give rise to wet dreams. 

So yeah, Aaron Sorkin could be one the patron saints of those who want to be storytellers. Which surprises me even more when I find his name on the screenplay of Moneyball. 

Because Moneyball is a film about how a American baseball team cut the bullshit and decided to win games. Based on the non fiction book by Michael Lewis, it traces the 2002 season of Oakland Athletics under the stewardship of GM Billy Beane. 

Now,Billy Beane got exposed to professional bullshit early in his life, he made a bad decision, falling prey to a talent scout who convinced Billy and his family that he has all the talent that is made to become a sports superstar. 

Except he didn’t. Not even close. 

The danger with these word driven professions and relationships, is that after a point people start believing in their own bullshit, it’s easier at stage when the storyteller is able to discern which part of what he/she says is the truth and which part is the shit. But when they keep doing that for years, it becomes difficult, as in the case of talent scouts looking for future recruits in the film. 

There’s a scene where Brad Pitt (who plays Billy Beane) is sitting at the end of a table with half a dozen talent scouts, the Oakland A’s have just lost their marquee players and are looking for replacements. 

X,Y & Z players are chosen not for their ability but for reasons such as how pretty the player’s girlfriend is. He’s been fed all these narratives and no real solution to build a team that will win. 

That’s the thing with professional bullshitters, they often forget the problem they have been employed to solve, but circle around intangibles not willing to face or seek the truth. 

Billy Beane could have been a top executive somewhere far away from professional bullshitters had he taken up the offer from a top school and not followed someone else’s gut instinct, but you cannot really blame these tale spinners entirely, they have been doing it for long convincingly, drowning in their own stories and overestimating their ability in every step, even when the data points the opposite way. 

They are the ones who need help, too. 

The Difficulty of Being Honest

One of the best things that the movie Moneyball does is that it addresses how difficult it is to be honest in the real world and how civility and pleasantries weigh in on every conversation, but thankfully it also shows how an honest conversation can bring about real change. 

Every conversation that Billy has with those who are up the power chain (his boss, his ex-wife with whom he shares a kid, the team manager played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman)is laced with needless affirmations of positivity, half-truths to somehow sneak in what he really wants to say. 

But when he is the one holding the power chord in conversations (to her peers, the talent scouts, the players ) it’s always business, always to the point and always with a result. Never an indecisive moment. Never an extra word wasted on a pleasantry.

The more honest he gets, the more his team wins.

With data powering him, Billy Beane is able to make the most dramatic decisions in the mid-season of play, but hardly seems dramatic while doing it. The lack of drama is due to the absence of charged up confrontational scenes, and what do confrontational scenes bring? Yes a lot of words in full volume. 

The Oakland A’s go onto create a record number of wins, a team that could hardly hope to retain its key players at the start of the season managed to go high places because its GM chose to cut out the bullshit and focus on what is to be done by careful analysis. 

That’s the story. 

It doesn’t need embellishment, it doesn’t need narrative constructs, it doesn’t need the ‘instinct and gut’, it doesn’t at all need words, it doesn’t definitely need storytellers.

Which is why it surprises me to see Aaron Sorkin’s name on the credits of Moneyball, it surprises me even more to know that he was nominated for a writing Oscar for this film. It doesn’t surprise me, however, to find that he shared a screenplay credit with Steve Zaillian.

Moneyball is the most non-Sorkinesque of the Sorkin films, there is hardly any walk and talk, there is no high pitched emotional venting, there is not much smart quipping at each other moments. Very less confrontation, very less words. 

It’s all very quiet, the dialogue is on point, nothing more than the scene demands. Although I could see the ‘screenplaying’ in the form of the relationship between Billy Beane and his daughter, it doesn’t divert the attention away from the story. Though I acknowledge that there is a lot of Sorkin in one major three way phone call scene. 

Which makes me wonder, was Sorkin compelled by the inherent forces of the story to tone himself down or was he having a crisis of faith? Was he losing his words for the search for the truth? Moneyball, after all is mostly the truth, these things happened. 

(I don’t have to make everything about myself, but hey this is my blog)

By asking that question I know I am playing down a lot of things, like say the involvement of director Bennet Miller,the contribution of Steve Zaillian and Stan Chervin who wrote the script and story respectively.

But to answer that here’s what Zaillian told Sorkin during the time when Sony Pictures asked for a rewrite “Listen, do me a favor, don’t change the movie. Just write more of it.”

Sorkin could have and certainly had the power to make the movie another Sorkinesque film, after all he had just written The Social Network! 

But he didn’t. He stuck to the story.

Following Moneyball, Sorkin wrote an adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s monumental Steve Jobs biography and this video hints that Sorkin is back to his ‘language’ days. And Moneyball seems to be just a one-off for him, the one time the story was saved from the storyteller.  

Moneyball can be seen from the outside world of sports and analytics too, like this piece called Who’s On First by Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler. 

While here I am typing away and trying to connect seeking truth in life and seeking truth in movies, with Moneyball playing example, but the events did happen right? Oakland A’s did win all those matches and other teams did start to adopt Billy Beane’s method of team building, it did force the talent scouts to reduce their guessing games and kitchen counter speeches and go behind numbers, it changed something and so there must be some truth in it. 

All great movies (despite the words), reveal a personal truth to the watcher and for me Moneyball did during this rewatch. 

So all is not in vain, if you have read this far, hope you did get something out of it and not empty words.

There’s a lot of challenges for many of us right now and we don’t know what the world is turning out to be, but Moneyball offers a warm blanket of a solution too and when followed moderately can lead to happiness. 

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cinema cinema:english

Speaking of Endings- Star Wars:The Rise Of Skywalker

So yeah. 

When I came to the very end of the end of “The Rise of Skywalker” which is the end of this new trilogy of Star Wars films, but it is also the end of the end of all the Star Wars films so far (yet). 

Only one thing struck me, they had ONLY planned the end of the end. 

So the rest of the movie was just to get to the end of the end? 

At least they could have been honest. They could have put in a slide saying, “you know we think the best ending for this Star Wars is Rey doing a Luke and watching the binary sunset, we just don’t know how to get there”, but of course honesty is that value which is quite in shortage in this world, can’t expect much. 

They should have gotten our email address and just mailed the ending. With consent and all for GDPR.

Instead I was treated to more than two hours of lessons on finding the self, being a good leader, not seeking revenge, standing up for brethren and more importantly, never losing hope. In short the movie was trying to emulate a good twitter account and wait for the RTs to ring. 

Look now, I’m not opposed to hope; let me just make that clear,I am just tired that it is being sold again. Yeah people fall for it, deep down everyone feels they are special, of course that is why a character of Rey would appeal to everyone, a nobody who saves the universe- the last jedi- our last hope. 

I have seen this. Next one please. 

Movies can be about anything, it can be about hope, it can be about despair, it can be about friendship, it can be about tiredness; but a film about hope should evoke hopeful qualities not make me tired and a movie about tiredness should not make me hopeful.

The Dead Speak! The Audience Yawn!

The Dead Speak! Screams the familiar opening crawl, as though to make us forget the ending of the previous movie, the entire galaxy has now heard a broadcast, obviously it cannot be someone new, someone whose story we have to build from the start, someone whose exploits we need to follow over time so we get accustomed to their behaviour and then decide whether to fear him or not. 

No no no, it must be an old and familiar face whose appearance might bring some amount of excitement back into the fan bloodstream. So yeah let’s get the old main villain and try and sell the “i’m the puppet master behind everything that happened till now” narrative. 

I paused. So this is where they went a little bit like Infinity War, although without the infinity stones- they just had two-pathfinders-to the villain’s lair. Umm nothing dramatic, I have seen enough movies to know what will ultimately happen in a villain’s lair. 

Irresponsible Expectations 

Partly I am to blame, where did I think they would go with it? 

A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy With More Of The Same

On the Laureate, we try to write about genre a lot, but we skipped franchises. Yes they are deeply steeped in genre lore, but also deeply bound in risk. A franchise exists only to make money. Yep. 

It’s not enough if just the fans see it, it should appeal to everyone and in the end, add more star wars fans. The movies themselves are made timed to not allow enough time for the fans to figure out why they liked it in the first place. They have to see the next one and be disappointed until they announce another series, a few years later- another series where someone’s grandson is now leading the resistance against another black robe clad father figure, I mean Vader figure. 

By this time, another enthusiastic innocent generation would have been pulled into the fandom, this fandom which will include buying t-shirts, dolls, plastic light sabers, theme parks and voice over gigs for Vijay Sethupathi. 

A new paste of slimy culture over mine, made to make me feel how my slime (now hardened) was actually better. No it wasn’t. . 

For some like, it is now a habit. I have seen the films. They are more of the same. I don’t even have the mind to say, “but in the original trilogy…” Nevermind. As someone said, these movies are about space wizards intended for children. 

Good sunset. BTW. 

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cinema:english Essay

Joker (2019)

The immediate message that got to me after watching Arthur Fleck slowly descend into madness is that I should get out of my head for good. 

Joker’s a really well made film, thoughtfully so in the departments of art and cinematography, but something about this record of madness doesn’t sit well with me. This was one of the reasons, I gave myself for skipping the film, until today.

Another reason is that I don’t really like the Joker character. 

There, I said it. 

Enough hot takes, I would like to elaborate a little, what I really mean is that I don’t really appreciate the modern interpretations of the character- starting from Heath Ledger’s take in the Dark Knight.

The character (in the movies) has traveled far from the camp that Jack Nicholson literally painted on screen. Now all the fun is gone. 

Well it’s been a generation since 1989. Things change, people tend to be attracted to different things. 

Maybe they do prefer this interpretation, where a comic prince of clown is moulded into this thinning frame which has nothing in its heart, but only itself ( and self pity of course). Maybe there is a reason why Arthur Fleck is a stand up comedian- a profession that requires a lot of suppressed anger (on society and on self) to be converted into jokes. And when those jokes don’t work? It turns into the descent, that I touched upon earlier. 

Drawing directly from Scorsese’s influential work in the 70s & the 80s that also featured decaying characters in cities of decay, Todd Phillips, adds too little. By throwing in Robert De Niro in as a funny talk show host, Phillips ensure that the Scorsese references don’t go unnoticed.

Gotham now has a rat problem, there is garbage everywhere and they hate the rich. The city then erupts into protests with people wearing clown masks because billionaire Thomas Wayne made an offhand comment, an indication that protests may not always have its origins in meaning.

But there is one thing, it doesn’t seem like a usual super hero(or villain) based film, and kudos to the director for that and Phoenix is in his usual great form; but after a point it becomes difficult to back the delusions of a depressed guy. 

Joker, the character itself is quite diabolical and is in constant need of space and adoration, it almost stole the movie from Batman in the Dark Knight; now it wants it’s own movie and going by the box office collections, it could have its own franchise. 

A franchise for those who feel they are disenfranchised. God, help me.

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cinema cinema:english

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

I am not a motorsports enthusiast, heck I am not even a sports enthusiast but the sports film, Ford vs Ferrari is one of the most impactful films I have seen this year. 

James Mangold’s film is a product of conviction and evident proof that the only way to win over the audience is through good story and great characters and not by pandering to them. When done well this approach brings in even those who are not remotely interested in the space that you are making the movie in. ( Me and sports)

I don’t think, I emphasised the previous paragraph to much effect; what I meant to say is that making a good film starts by having complete disregard to the expectations that your audience might have. 

“Oh right, this is one of those sports films and the movie ends with the winning moment” 

No it doesn’t.

But it plays on the existing sports movie template and makes it better. 

Make it better.

Ford vs Ferrari is a movie about optimisation. It’s not what movies are usually about, especially Tamil movies, in which we take the broadest of canvasses to tell the shallowest of stories. Optimisation begins where specialisation deepens. Ford v Ferrari is about making fast cars, faster. 

Bit by bit, Ken Miles(Christian Bale in a soon to be multi-nominated performance), our hero is trying to make things better. As a race car driver he is in search of an elusive perfect lap. Every race win, in this movie (and there are many) ends with a feeling of how he could actually have done it better, while the world watches in awe as Ken Miles breaks his own lap record. 

The search for excellence is a solitary game, it is a search that does not end with a pat on the back or the roaring sound of applause or admittance from peers. The search for excellence is in fact a never ending search. 

James Mangold takes the much seen sports drama arc which has the rebellious maverick- the considerate mentor- the conniving and unreasonable corporate into a drama about artisanal passion where the race (although shot with great precision ) gives way to the characters. 

Competing with respect

In any other movie, Henry Ford II ( Tracy Letts is brilliant) would be the corporate monster, a villain who derives pleasure in killing competition like boutique car mechanics. No, but here, underneath layers of tailored suit is an entrepreneur trying to do good by his grandfather’s legacy.  Mangold and his writers treat characters with respect, even the stock characters. 

Also in the movie is the relationship between designer Carroll Shelby( Matt Damon, too in a soon to be multi-nominated performance) and driver Ken Miles- a friendship so relatable when they have hands on each other’s shoulders talking about chassis and brakes, but not so much when they really try to spell it out. 

Nevertheless, Ford v Ferrari takes a close second place in my imaginary best films on friendship contest in 2019. That honor, as on date firmly rests with Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. 

For Mangold and his crew, I do what Enzo Ferrari does, with his hat, at the end of the race.

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cinema cinema:english Essay

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019)

That Tarantino taught himself movie making from behind the desk at a video store is the stuff of legend. In Chennai, it is not uncommon to have friends who due to compulsions of engaging with popular culture have a tee shirt which proudly says “ I never went to film school. I went to films” or some such Tarantino quote. 

Tarantino is the real life story of the fringe becoming mainstream, the director who launched the career of numerous disciples, the director who within a short time had an ‘esque’ added to his name. The director who has his quotes on t shirts in Chennai. 

It’s what he became.But let’s come back to the first  fact, as a video store clerk- he saw every type of film. Often in the transference of his coolness, the reason for his coolness is omitted.He saw every type of film.  

Has there been any Tarantino conversation without the generous movie name-dropping? To think of it, his tee shirt makes perfect sense, he really figured out how to make movies by just watching a ton of movies- a certified movie nut with unconditional love. 

He just didn’t stream the AFI top 100 to become what he did become(relevant in our time of curated lists and general entitlement of everyone seeking the ‘best’). 

Tarantino went to work, consuming films of all types and sizes, without any notion of preconceived taste.His passion extends beyond just viewing them but to track down and remember every filmmaker. The resultant is a wholly unique person with an extremely specific movie taste. 

Specific to the extent of keeping a close watch on how he will be remembered (the 9th film by Quentin Tarantino is how Once Upon A Time…is marketed), his movies are combos- the ones on a food menu which arrive quick, valuable and consists of enticing items from different pages in the same menu. Each preceding film was a genre version of what Tarantino cooked up. 

But Once Upon A Time is different…it is still a heady mix of genres, it still moves to an assorted pop soundtrack and radio commercials, it does have an obliqueness to violence but this is really Tarantino’s way of giving it back (love) to his industry. 

Although at the same time it is not the “love letter” or the nostalgia driven look of Hollywood- it is authentic but not rose tinted. It is a film about time, a word that features in the title. 

A passage of time, 1969 seems to be year of closure of many things Old Hollywood- the slowing of the studio system- the decline of a certain sort of heroism. 

A man’s man would be ridiculed in our ‘woke’ times, but their careers seem to have ended a long time ago. I can never imagine an ‘environmentally’ aware hero like Leonardo taking up anything remotely similar to Bounty Law ( the TV series that Rick Dalton, his character plays in this movie). 

Tarantino feels for Rick Dalton & his driver-companion Cliff Booth (Dalton himself is based on many leading TV men of the 50s and 60s who lost their way, without a break, mostly forgotten by history) but he is not tied down by the weight of historical accuracy. He wants them to get that one break, that one lucky break which could change a sagging career. 

At the other end of the story is a young Sharon Tate, who at the time represented the Hollywood to come, young with life, till it was horrifically taken away from her. Tarantino cares for her too, doesn’t really care for history. One of the best moments come from Tate getting to watch her on screen in the ‘The Wrecking Crew’. A rather ‘asinine’ film, as Tarantino himself put it while guesting on a podcast. It isn’t regarded as a classic film but means so much to Sharon Tate, thus proving that any movie could make deep impact in a person’s life, irrespective of how it has been ‘regarded’ by society (especially critics). 

The ending, which is sure to shock many, but unlike the catharsis of killing Hitler in Inglorious Basterds, this comes from a sweet place of good intentions and confidence.  The way he juxtaposes fact and fiction in a way that only reminded me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian- a film that follows the parallel lives of the Christ and a commoner.

Clearly my favourite Tarantino and definitely the most re-watchable , a movie where I could endear myself to his brashness.

He knows his stuff, this is his subject, he seems to be having the most fun when without any care following his characters to see where they go-forgetting lines, feeding dogs, folding clothes, watching movies and generally raising hell in the Hollywood of 1969.