April 21, 2014

Men and Moneyball

October 18, 2011 by · 8 Comments 

“I think about baseball

virtually every waking hour of my life.”

                                                        -  Bill James

 


Moneyball-Poster

courtesy of google images

 

Good face.   Good jaw. 

Five tools.  Clean stroke.  He’s cheap.  Buy wins.  Buy runs.   The what?   Rich teams.  Poor teams.   Who’s that?   That’s Pete.   So what?

Yes.  Please.

Shake things up.   Who are you?   Yes, he does.   You do not.   Pile of crap.   Who’s that kid?   Friend of mine.  He can’t throw.  He just did.  You do not.  Teach?  Which one?   So?  So what?   You got kids?   I’ll tell him.  What’s the point?  What was it?  What was it?  Is that it?  

You did good. 

Pops off the bat.   He gets on base.   What do you do?   I went to Yale.

I asked you to do three.   Text me the play by play.   I don’t watch the games.   Well, hey, good luck with that. 

What a dump.

It’s hard to see, but it’s there. 

We will have changed the game.

 

________________


“Moneyball” is a film full of men speaking largely in monosyllables.  This could mean that its screenwriters possess a vocabulary roughly equivalent to that of a five-year-old, which is clearly not the case, or it may suggest that the world of baseball is full of Neanderthals who grunt for a living, which on some level might be true.   But I think there’s more going on here.

The complexity of baseball is belied by the apparent simplicity of its vocabulary and its basic numbers, such as 3, 9, 6-4-3, and 0.

Monosyllables function eloquently and purposefully in “Moneyball.”     They are deceptively simple words that create important, urgent, and witty rhythms; they cut through nonsense in getting at the essence of baseball; they represent an earnest attempt to apprehend the truth of a game and its people, and perhaps an accompanying desire to manipulate these truths.

When voiced as a question – as, for example, when Billy Beane first encounters the bright young economist Peter Brand  – monosyllables can establish a sense of impatience, urgency, and passion.  They are especially effective when voiced by a competent actor:   “Who are you?   What do you do?”   Repeating his simple question in a tone of eager curiosity and wonder rather than condescension or disdain – “Who are you?”  – Brad Pitt emphasizes “are” instead of “who” or “you.”  It’s an early sign that this film is seeking to venture into more serious ontological territory.

One of the most famous speeches in our language, after all, is a soliloquy that wrestles with the idea of being.   The lines of that speech are memorable in large part because Shakespeare chose monosyllables for the soliloquy’s first line in lieu of fancy King Jamesian language and arrogant political rhetoric.    To be or not to be.  Language doesn’t get much simpler than this.

Monosyllables effectively establish the rhythm of human conversation and convey personality as well as any costume, facial expression, or idiosyncratic gesture.    “Yale.   I went to Yale.”  The monosyllables in “Moneyball” succinctly articulate theories to be argued or refuted:  buy wins  and  buy runs, for example.

Monosyllables and awkward pauses are a very real part of ordinary discourse, and many of us speak best in silences:   “All moved in?”   “Yeah.   Yeah.”

Suddenly, however, a polysyllabic word breaks the monotony of simple speech, and it makes all the difference in this film, both rhythmically and conceptually.   “Economics.   I studied Economics.”    The audience takes heed.   Billy is acutely interested.    A friendship is beginning, an engaging character taking shape.   Here in a cubicle in the middle of Cleveland is a bright young man who is clearly holding something back; he cannot wait to bust out with the excitement of what he knows about baseball.

Monosyllables are important in “Moneyball,” because it is against the backdrop of simple language and old ideas that bigger words and newer ways of thinking about the game begin to make sense and gather momentum:    “We create him in the aggregate.”

“The what?”

The veteran scouts sitting around a conference table at this  “dump” of a major league facility are real men playing themselves, speaking in monosyllables as they evaluate other human beings, and the screenplay is better for it, gruffly and endearingly so.

As numbers become higher and the formulae more challenging, the characters’ syntax grows more complex, as do their relationships.  In Bill James’s world, numbers are language.   When Billy Beane challenges his new assistant, an easy numeral comically gives way to higher digits.  At the same time, the film’s language moves from monosyllabic speech to phrases that are more sophisticated both syntactically and morally, and the new partnership subtly shifts to a higher intellectual and emotional level.

“I asked you to do three.    How many did you do?”

“Forty-seven … actually, fifty-one, I don’t know why I lied just then.”

Brad Pitt spends a fair amount of screen time with bits of food as his prop.  Seeds, coffee, popcorn, junk.   “I’ll tell him,” he says, while stuffing an entire Twinkie in his mouth.    “Well, hey, good luck with that,” David Justice says to Scott Hatteberg while munching on cereal in the clubhouse. Monosyllables are especially entertaining when voiced with food in the mouth.

Quick words create one engaging scene after another in a fast-paced script.  The rhythm of “Moneyball” is one of drive and urgency.   At various points along the way, fewer words allow for better facial expressions.   It is during the silences of the film that we notice an economist moving his eyes, a mind at work, a coach who feels devalued.

Whether a scene is comical, or tense, or bittersweet in nature, monosyllables give the actor important opportunities for expression.     When Carlos Pena learns that he has been released, his reaction – like that of the assistant general manager – is astonishingly simple:

“Is that it?”

“Yes.”

Whether or not this is an accurate transcript of what actually occurred between Pena and DePodesta, the scene works, because its compact, monosyllabic lines leave plenty of room for pain.   Upon learning of the Giambi and Pena trades, Phillip Seymour Hoffman blinks twice while listening to Pitt; then he moves his eyes sideways, prior to raising a question that he actually voices as a fait accompli statement.

“You traded Pena.”

No hysteria, no screaming outburst, no exclamation points, no grandiloquent speech.  It’s baseball talk – understated, full of tension and emotion.

The monosyllable often rescues Billy from sentimentality in the nick of time, just as he’s about to display a more tender, vulnerable, or noble emotion:  ”What a dump.”  Beane’s parting words to Pete near the end of the film are all monosyllables.  His is a simple, colloquial, yet heartfelt farewell.

Male voices dominate this film, but a female presence softens it.  Curiously, though, it’s not a wife, girlfriend, or personal assistant who provides the love interest.  The movie doesn’t really need a romantic subplot.  There’s no Glenn Close gazing beatifically from the outfield toward home plate, no Annie Savoy reading Walt Whitman to a frisky player.   In fact, as in Moneyball the book (which names only four women in its index – count them: four), the female characters in this film are fleeting presences.  They brew coffee, issue bitchy remarks in the clubhouse (“Hey, get outta my shot!”), whisk a child away from a business meeting. Portrayed in less than a minute of screen time by the ever-lovely Robin Wright, Billy’s ex-wife receives him in her cosmetically perfect living room whose Zen décor seems to cry out, “I’m so glad I don’t have to live that baseball life with you anymore,” though one might sense a hint of ambivalence and regret in her enigmatic expression.

Incidentally, Bill James’s wife Susan McCarthy makes an appearance in the footnotes of Moneyball:  “Bill hid his interest in baseball when we first started dating.   If I had known the extent of it, I’m not sure we’d have gotten very far.”

When Billy Beane returns to Oakland after his off-season meeting with John Henry in a dreary Fenway Park, it’s Peter Brand who assumes the place that a woman might normally occupy, upon welcoming the main character home.  Their conversation reads like a script intended for a couple sitting at the kitchen table late at night and speaking intimately about their future, but in Billy’s world, the important moment of connection exists between men, and it takes place not at home but in the dim light of a clubhouse:

“What was it?”   Pete wants to hear a dollar amount.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“What was it?”

Does – n’t  mat – ter.”                                                                                                                                                      

Billy’s daughter is his sweetest and simplest love interest; she is the antidote to the film’s harsher outbursts – the throwing of chairs across a room, the upturning of coolers in the clubhouse and shattering of glass, the lonely moments of cruising and reckless driving.    Casey predictably follows these more violent scenes, and it’s her job to show that Billy is capable of sustaining a personal relationship outside the world of baseball.  It is in his daughter that we see Billy’s capacity to love another human being.

Their interactions take place in a music store, an airport terminal, and in the kitchen where they eat ice cream together.   She’s kept at a safe distance from the field, however, and beyond the confines of baseball, as if protected from the world of men, as if the film doesn’t know quite where to place her. She exists outside the main plot, and her influence is strongest when manifested as a sweet voice in Billy’s car when she’s not even physically present.

These interludes are endearing, but in my view, the parenting scenes seem to have been lifted from another film.   They interrupt the honest momentum of the story, robbing it of other potentially dynamic and meaningful baseball moments.  Maybe the audience welcomes the quiet relief of a domestic scene, but this is a story that can’t afford to slow down too much.   And you can’t rush or force a relationship with a daughter.

Much as I yearn personally to see admirable women in baseball movies and solid father-daughter relationships, I’m not convinced that these components are essential to Moneyball’s success.  The relationship between Billy and Casey is believable and sweet, but in terms of energy and chemistry, it doesn’t come close to matching the gruff tenderness we witness among men, or the surprising depth and curious intimacy that evolves so much more authentically and satisfyingly between Billy and Pete.

A child’s pure voice offsets the grittier world of baseball with lyricism and tenderness, but the lyrics of her theme song (aptly titled “The Show”) seem made for a different kind of film.   You may have heard the tune a few years ago, in fact, in an Old Navy commercial.  Kerris Dorsey’s rendition in ”Moneyball” is undeniably lovely:

I’m just a little bit caught in the middle
Life is a maze and love is a riddle
I don’t know where to go I can’t do it alone I’ve tried
And I don’t know why
Slow it down
Make it stop–
Or else my heart is going to pop.

 

Her solo brings tears to Pitt’s eyes, but the song’s “dum dee dum, duh-dum dee dum” refrain dumbs down the film intellectually if not emotionally and seems incongruous in a drama whose cerebral center is Bill James and the ideological shift toward sabermetrics.

Far more effective is a subtle yet powerful musical theme that plays quietly at key moments in “Moneyball” while the plot drives purposefully forward. The haunting leitmotif begins tentatively as five simple notes.   It’s a warm, tender, benevolent music from elsewhere, hinting at possibility and shimmering with anticipation.   The intervals are unusual – not your standard harmonic progression in predictable thirds or fifths, and it’s not easy to determine whether the key is minor or major:  F# – F – C#   rest.   G#  A#.      (It took me a while to figure out this sequence while playing it on the piano after seeing the movie a second time.  I was a little obsessed with the melody, in fact.)

You could say that this theme is the musical equivalent of monosyllables.  It’s deceptively simple.   Try playing it if you have a keyboard.  Take time with each note, repeat the phrase, then waver slowly between G# and A#,  and you will experience not just an important part of the “Moneyball” soundtrack  but the soul of the film.

This music was borrowed from a curious source, a post-rock band that recorded “The Mighty Rio Grande” in 2007; it’s a brilliant choice for “Moneyball,” especially when intertwined with the soulful cello and warm ostinato of Mychael Danna’s moving orchestral score.

The gentle tapping of a muffled drum joins this very basic angular melody in a primitive sound that resembles the beating of a human heart.   One feels a growing sense of urgency and quickening in the film as an exciting mathematical idea begins to take shape.  Music builds suspense unobtrusively and subliminally throughout “Moneyball,” advancing and enhancing much of the rough action with accompanying lyricism.   The “Rio Grande” melody functions as the film’s dominant theme and serves as a musical metaphor for its central idea: “We will have changed the game.”   Future perfect tense.

Near the end of the film, Brad Pitt voices a sentimental question:   “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”  The line is cloying, out of character, and entirely unnecessary, in my view, because the romance of the film comes across nonverbally in the game itself, in baseball’s imagery, in the expressions on Billy’s face, and Peter’s too, in the tension and affection among men, and so poignantly in the quiet richness of a musical score that builds toward the film’s stunning climax.

Baseball is not just a tactile and visual thing, nor is it a purely mathematical idea; the game is also auditory in nature.   When one is watching a good baseball movie, it isn’t enough to hear the crack of the bat and the cheering of a crowd at its climax.   Music and silence are essential in reaching the psyche and lifting the material to the level of art.

The intelligent thesis of Michael Lewis’s best-selling Moneyball (2003)  is now old news, and Jamesian sabermetrics are no longer the exclusive intellectual property of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s, and other teams with inferior resources.  Moneyball is not the silver bullet, after all, and there is no single magic formula.  The intangibles still matter, and so does character.  Just ask anyone in Boston.

“Moneyball” is not a documentary of one season, nor is it simply Hollywood’s version of a good book.  Film is not real life.   It’s not biography or ESPN.   In two hours, a movie cannot begin to tell all the complex human stories that combine to form the truth of baseball in our time.

Film is art, and as such, it has to become a metaphor for baseball and the human condition, just as an amusing video clip enables Pete to teach Billy Beane a lesson about himself:

“It’s a metaphor.”

“Yeah, I know it’s a metaphor.”

We sit in the darkness of a theatre, hoping to experience something that resembles baseball.   Good baseball movies like “Moneyball” have to feel like the best ballgames we’ve ever seen.   They have to capture the tension and the joy.

“Moneyball” seeks to take us into a territory that ultimately transcends numbers and personalities and our best efforts to measure and control these things.   Built upon monosyllables and amplified with a rich musical score, the film invites its audience to participate in the authentic excitement of a new idea, and then moves toward a higher plane of intangibles and into the realm of art, which in the end is what all good baseball becomes at its best.    This is where “Moneyball” takes me, as Scott Hatteberg drives the ball out into a vast darkness.

 

 

Comments

8 Responses to “Men and Moneyball”
  1. Diane says:

    Terrific review …. I’ve seen the movie twice, and you added to my enjoyment of it.

  2. Judy Johnson says:

    Thanks, Diane – I’m so pleased to know this! – j

  3. John Thorn says:

    Pretty damn good, Judy. I have not seen the film for fear that I might not like it. Now I may.

  4. Raymond E. Jones says:

    Thank you, lady, for such a fine review. I read the book three times; saw the movie once. Sorry I know so little about musical scores, and I recall too little as well. Should I see the movie a second time, I’ll try at least to learn the melody. Best wishes. Ray

  5. marsha pliakas says:

    Excellent review and commentary! I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and reading your review and seeing it through your eyes has definitely enhanced the experience. I may even see it again with your insights in mind. Thanks Judy.

  6. Judy Johnson says:

    It’s wonderful to have such thoughtful readers. I’m thrilled to read your comments – many thanks for reading! -j

  7. Burgundy Featherkile says:

    You write magnificent prose, m’dear! Keep it up.

  8. Dave Baldwin says:

    Beautifully written, Judy, and so much more thoughtful than most movie reviews. Thank you for reminding me to be concise in my writing. “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

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