08 August 2007

Mr. Bonds

At long last Major League Baseball has a new all-time home run leader. Last night San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds hit No. 756, putting him one ahead of Henry Aaron on the career list and giving him sole possession of the most revered record in baseball or any sport. I watched it live, but after months of soul-crushing hype, the event itself seemed little more than an anticlimactic footnote. Events are not what they used to be.

People don’t like Bonds. People, in fact, dislike Bonds so much that there was much talk of whether he would be booed if he broke the record during an away game, a scenario that fortunately didn’t come to pass. Bonds is aloof, egotistical, and difficult to deal with. And then of course there’s the little matter of steroids. Is Bonds’s accomplishment “tainted” by his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs?

As with much else in our increasingly degraded public discourse, in which every issue of the day is presumed to have two and only two “sides,” discussion of Bonds and of steroids in baseball has been dominated by two simplistic positions. Either steroids are the worst thing that’s ever happened to baseball and Bonds is an affront to humanity or Bonds is the greatest player ever and this whole steroid controversy is a product of that sinister beast known as “the media,” a bogus scandal that real baseball fans don’t care about. The latter view is easily dismissed, predicated as it is on the implicit assumption that baseball fans are nothing but beer-swilling morons interested only in dumb spectacle. Proponents of the “nobody cares” argument have attempted to support their position by interpreting the steady attendance at MLB ballparks over recent years as a referendum on steroid use, an argument that makes no sense whatsoever. In any event, polling data tells a different story entirely.

Not generally a fan of drug-testing in the workplace unless public safety is at stake, I do support aggressive testing programs for athletes in baseball and other sports in the belief that players shouldn’t have to risk their long-term health in order to be able to compete on a level field. Having said that, I do not think steroids are the worst thing ever to happen to baseball. Or even the worst thing to happen to baseball in my lifetime. Or for that matter, even the second-worst. The 1994 work stoppage, which led to the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years, was by far the lowest moment the game has seen in living memory. And nothing of which Bonds has been accused rates comparison with the actions of the still-beloved Pete Rose, whose gambling cut to the very heart of the baseball’s integrity. Rose’s crimes against the game were worse than Bonds’s. Orders of magnitude worse. Yet polls indicate that most baseball fans are willing to forgive Rose despite his having done absolutely nothing to deserve it.

No, what we’re talking about here is merely cheating, pure and simple, a subject that has a long and ambivalent history in baseball. (For some reason when pitchers cheat it’s considered cute and charming, while when hitters cheat it’s considered some horrible affront to the sport.) This particular form of cheating is more dangerous than spitballs or corked bats because of the aforementioned health effects of performance-enhancing drugs, but ultimately the issue has been blown out of proportion, absorbed into a larger social hysteria about drug use, a topic that Americans have been largely incapable of having a rational conversation about since the Reagan administration, if not earlier.

Discussion of whether the record is “tainted” misses the point in at least one important sense. More than fans of any other sport, baseball fans tend to value statistics, records, and history. We love to compare players from different eras, to imagine how today’s hitters would stack up against the likes of Aaron and Babe Ruth. But underlying it all is (or at least should be) a wry acknowledgment that comparing players from different eras is ultimately a futile pursuit. Much is made of the fact that Babe Ruth never had to face any black or Latino pitchers, playing as he did in the era of segregation, but then there are also the advantages that today’s hitters have in terms of smaller ballparks and strike zones, not to mention video technology, which has probably benefited hitters more than pitchers. It would be one thing if Bonds were the only MLB player accused of taking steroids, but contrary to the impression one might get from some of the anti-Bonds folks in the media, this is not the case. Perhaps steroids are best regarded as part of the baseline of this particular era in baseball history, the "Steroid Era” as sportswriters have taken to calling it. And like it or not, Bonds is indisputably the era’s greatest slugger, as were Aaron and Ruth in their own times. Records and numbers may be hallowed things in baseball, but ultimately, when discussing athletic greatness, statistics are only a starting point, not the be-all and end-all.

It was nice to see Aaron last night, albeit via pre-recorded video, graciously offering his congratulations to Bonds. His reaction was a stark contrast to the ridiculous behavior of baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who offered only tepid public statements after both the tying and record-breaking home runs, qualifying his congratulations with dark insinuations about Bonds being “innocent until proven guilty.” (Related topic for another day: When did “he’s innocent until proven guilty” become one of the most damning things you can say about someone? This meaning of this phrase appears to have completely reversed itself.)

Selig was nowhere to be seen in last night in San Francisco—supposedly, he was to meet today with former senator George Mitchell, the head of MLB’s quixotic “investigation” into steroid use, which seems from this vantage to be little more than an attempt to nail Bonds. It’s hypocritical for Selig to attempt to distance himself from Bonds’s accomplishment when so much of the Steroid Era unfolded on his watch. Along with the owners, the players, the media, and of course the fans, the commissioner chose to ignore the issue for years, and now he’s dealing with the consequences. But for today, Selig and Bonds, along with baseball fans of all stripes, can unite in one sentiment: relief that the home run chase is finally over.

01 August 2007

Bergman and Antonioni

It's not exactly John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dropping dead within hours of each other on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but the passing this past Monday of two of the most significant European filmmakers of the past half-century or so, the 89-year-old Ingmar Bergman and the 94-year-old Michelangelo Antonioni, both towering figures of cinematic modernism, certainly qualifies as an odd coincidence.

In his commercial heyday, from the late 1950s through the 1970s—a run that included such films as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and the remarkable Persona—Bergman was perhaps the best-known foreign filmmaker in the United States, his reputation rivaled only by that of Federico Fellini. As has been the case with Fellini, Bergman's critical stock has fallen a bit in recent years (not that one would get a sense of these shifting currents from Monday's New York Times obituary, which may have single-handedly set the cause of film history back 25 years), but he remains a great artist possessed of a singular vision, whose work is instantly recognizable for its religious/spiritual fixations, high-contrast lighting (courtesy of his two great cinematographers, Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist), and baroque dream sequences. A tireless worker during his prime, Bergman divided his career between theater and cinema, and in a way his achievement was ultimately more theatrical than cinematic: finding ways to dramatize the innermost conflicts of the human mind and soul.

If Antonioni strikes me as an artist of a wholly different order, it's in part because he was first and foremost a filmmaker—the awkward English title of the documentary portrait "To Make a Film Is to Be Alive" accurately captures his view of himself and the medium (it is telling that the most dramatic scene of Antonioni’s best-known movie depicts a photographer in the act of developing film). Few have done as much to expand the possibilities of that medium: Filmmakers since the dawn of the talkie era had shown people in conversation, but how to show them in silence?

Almost all of Antonioni's greatest films—L'Avventura, Eclipse, The Passenger, and of course the oft-misinterpreted Blowup—can be described as mysteries without solutions. L'Avventura is the purest example: Ostensibly about the disappearance of a young woman during a daytrip to a barren island, the movie ends up focusing on the subsequent relationship between the woman's lover and best friend, who like the movie itself, soon forget about her entirely (this unprecedented thwarting of viewer expectations contributed to the film's being roundly booed at the Cannes Film Festival—where it went on to win a prize). But that description doesn't begin to do justice to L’Avventura, a masterpiece of rhythm and pacing that seeks nothing less than to represent the unrepresentable. The movie's ultimate subject is not "relationships" but their inverse—the insoluble gaps, silences, and unanswered glances of which people's lives are often made, particularly people born in the West and into a certain amount of money.

Alfred Hitchcock once defined drama as life with the boring parts cut out. In Antonioni's anti-dramas, the boring parts are most definitely left in. In almost any movie made before 1960, if a character takes 10 seconds to cross a room, the director will edit the scene so that the process only takes three or four seconds of screen time. In Antonioni's middle and late films, if a character takes 10 seconds to cross a room, then it takes 10 seconds on-screen. People don't always look at each other when they're talking and the human figures themselves are often overwhelmed by the landscapes surrounding them, whether natural (the barren island in L'Avventura) or manmade (as in the shot from Red Desert where the sickly yellow smoke of a factory smokestack slowly fills up the screen).

I could go on for hours, but I'll leave off here with one definitive Antonioni scene, the last of Eclipse. The man and woman at the center of the film's story have made plans to meet on a street corner. It's hardly shocking when neither of them bothers to show up. But Antonioni's camera does show up, and rather than ending, the movie simply goes on, depicting the sights and sounds of an unremarkable urban evening for what must be seven or eight minutes of terrifying emptiness. Background has suddenly becomes foreground and there's nothing left to distract us from the spiritual aridity of the world we've been watching for nearly two hours. For half a century, over the course of 16 features and a handful of shorts, Antonioni cast off the conventions of screen drama and trained his camera resolutely on such absences, voids, and silences, illuminating the darkness of contemporary life by inventing whole new ways of seeing. And we're all a little richer for it.