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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 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. 


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cinema cinema:english Essay Essential viewing

Let’s talk about : The Ocean’s Trilogy

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While we are on the topic of greatest movies ever made, let’s talk about the Ocean’s trilogy.

Steven Soderbergh is unpredictable, he retired from movie making some four years ago and then came back to make Logan Lucky, many called it an inversion of his Ocean’s trilogy; functional and without any style. The whole style vs substance would put the Ocean’s trilogy in bad light, but in reality style is the substance in these films.

Soderbergh himself has taken various positions on the Oceans franchise, from being appreciative to being ‘I don’t really care if you don’t like it’; but he has admitted that a lot of work went into the trilogy and that is why it is interesting (and great). A carefully constructed ode to old hollywood but still very modern and yet entertaining cinema.

Full disclosure: the Ocean’s trilogy for me is up there (obviously with LOTR) in terms of breaking up characters and their tales into three parts. The Lord of the Rings also had the cushion of a literary work and generations of readers who are familiar with the story.

Breaking down the Ocean’s trilogy; 11 sets up Ocean and his men brilliantly and 13 perfectly completes the story. Twelve falls short because it is unlike 11 or 13, but definitely the most interesting.

Soderbergh’s source material was a 1960 film directed by Moldovian-American director Lewis Milestone*; the original Ocean’s 11 headlined by Frank Sinatra and  Dean Martin, a film that currently holds only 48% weight on critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. That the remake has a score of 82%, that’s where I stop with the facts.

Even as a choice this seems quite odd for a remake. Soderbergh is like that, he professes that many directors too are like him: attracted to not so greater works of great filmmakers. Positively, this could be seen as learning from other’s mistakes but realistically it is about ignoring what ‘most people’ have agreed upon.

Great work usually comes from not-so great sources

Having seen the 1960 film, memorable is not something I would associate with it; but I can take a guess, it was the probably playful tone and actors bouncing off each other that attracted Soderbergh. He makes the source material his own and we get with three well directed classic films on professionalism and camaraderie.

Show, but don’t show-off

Like most films in this genre where we are indeed cheering for the bad guys, there is a sense of casual code; the team may seem like an assembly of rag-tag crooks but really they are bound together by their professionalism and dislike for vanity. Yes vanity.

Let’s look at the antagonist in the three films

  • Villain 1-Ocean’s 11: Terry Benedict: owner of 3 of the biggest casinos and suitably self-obsessed
  • Villain 2-Ocean’s 12: The Night Fox: a self congratulatory European gentleman thief
  • Villain 3-Ocean’s 13: Willy Bank: megalomaniac, obsessed with building the best hotel on the strip

If there had been an Ocean’s 14, then it is quite possible that the rat-pack would have taken on Tony Stark (yawn) or Donald Trump(?). The only difference between the good guys and the bad guys is “you can be be cool by not saying so”.

Also take into account that the villains have to be over the top, so that the thievery can be normalized but there is always an undercurrent of Ocean and co having a personal stake in the happenings. It is not about the money, but about the job.

It is always about the job

Coming back to professionalism: to sum up, the three films are about a bunch of guys who really really(emphasis mine) love their job and are very good at it, ready to accept unreasonable challenges but don’t want to be seen as very serious about it. It’s part of their act.

Daniel Ocean claims to look at the angles of buildings even when he is not working, Linus spends the prize of the first movie in improving his ‘skills’, Rusty tries running a hotel but feels he is not good at anything else.

The dialogue is a dictionary on skill development, tactics(looky loo with a bundle of joy!) and planning , everyone working towards doing a better con than before. Like Basher puts it ” we don’t do the same gag twice“. Optimization.

Much has been written about work and fun, as though they are too separate things; and coming from a society where the skills you have is almost always not the one which would be called to action at work, I am able to relate to this differentiation. Meaning work is the complete opposite of fun. Maybe that’s why Ocean’s sticks with me, it is about how with the right skills at the right place, any con is doable; I mean any goal is achievable.

Soderbergh could have just made a series of films about a bunch of accountants and still he would have made it in interesting. Ocean’s for me in many ways is about the triumph of work and not without the help of any hack productivity handbook.  A very American thing, but countries are really built by hard working passionate men (and women), who don’t usually get their due.

It is also about the gang

Already covered is their common dislike to individual success, Ocean despite being a master thief doesn’t work alone, the loot is equally shared even if everybody’s skills are not completely utilized.

Two of the three movies happen just to set things right for their mentor Reuben, and all the time they spend together is playful and devoid of any real conflict; the spirit of friendship pervades all through, just like friends having a good time in real life.

But more importantly, it all comes together very well

And finally a listicle!

If you have never watched the Ocean’s trilogy, here’s what you should expect.

  • Addictive. Re-watchable. Laugh-out-loud funny.
  • Sweeping the casino carpet type cinematography.
  • A soundtrack that stays with you for life.
  • Blow-your-cinephile-mind team up.
  • Rusty and Danny saying so much by not saying a word.
  • The twins saying so much but actually saying nothing.
  • The Amazing Yen!
  • Bruce Willis as himself.
  • And introducing  Tess as Julia Roberts! (the whole Looky Loo sequence)
  • Vincent Cassel -laser dance.
  • Viva La Revolucion!
  • Al Pacino ordering a Samsung phone
  • Everybody knowing Mandarin (no language imposition, they know it on the job)
  • “They have enough armed personnel to occupy Paris”
  • George Clooney saying “yeah”
  • The fountains swaying to Debussy’s Claire De Lune

The general coolness of it all(without being cool, sorry Quentin). I mean what is not to like?

Among the greatest Hollywood films, indeed.