As defined by MLB.com, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) “measures a player's value in all facets of the game by deciphering how many more wins he's worth than a replacement-level player at his same position.” Combining multiple statistical formulas for batters and pitchers respectively, this metric has in recent times become the most important barometer of a baseball player’s impact and career legacy.
Obviously, there’s no way to similarly quantify a director’s overall impact on a given film, but digging into their stylistic choices and thematic motivations is about as close as we can get. I’m not talking about necessarily the “how” (lens choices, camera, etc), but the “why.” There’s probably critics and production people out there who would disagree with that hierarchy, but exploring why a film looks and feels a certain way can help decipher an artist’s politics, worldview, and capacity for innovation and empathy for human experience.
In the last week, I viewed two different films that overtly call attention to their own stylistic approaches. One uses classic art film aesthetics (long takes, elaborate blocking, overlapping dialogue, tracking shots) to try and appear dramatic and weighty. One employs lo-fi computer animation, statistics, graphs, data and archival footage to explore sporting lives and legacies as something more than wins and losses. One is a total shit pile. The other is a total masterpiece.
First, the poop. My introduction to Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó came while attending the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 where his breakout film White God premiered in the Un Certain Regard section. It’s the heartwarmingly reductive story of an innocent girl who gets hunted by a murderous band of dogs. As social allegory, it’s stupid. As a horror film, it’s ridiculous. I hated it. A lot of my colleagues did too, but it ended up winning the award for Best Film in the UCR sidebar that year over real ones like Jauja, Force Majeure, The Blue Room, and Bird People. Overall, Mundruczó’s abrasive style struck me as blunt, self-indulgent, and aggressive.
After avoiding Mundruczó’s other films to this point, I found myself once again in his humorless grasp again thanks to awards season duties. Pieces of a Woman (Netflix) is a deathly gray melodrama that features a 24 minute “oner” tracing a disastrous home birth involving Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner Sean (Shia LaBeouf). Maybe I’m wrong, but this doesn’t appear to be an actual long take. It looks like one of those Birdman acts of fakery meant to create the illusion of an unbroken camera shot meant to feel intense, devastating, and tragic, but comes across as just gross. At its worst, Mundruczó’s style is a disingenuous stab at gritty realism that feels downright predatory.
The aftermath of Martha’s horrific experience feels no less cinematically manipulative, as the film’s camera attaches itself to this distraught woman like an anchor. She feels increasingly isolated and guilt-ridden by her baby’s death and the media fallout from her midwife’s criminal negligence trial. Kirby does her best, imbuing Martha with dignity in the face of her family’s selfish reactions to the situation. Yet, the film’s unflinching approach continues to traffic in this kind of suffocating overbearing tonal malaise that never gets at the internal struggle of the woman it’s supposed to be about. Mundruczó, more interested in the contrived ripples caused by the event itself, simplifies his central character’s dilemma of self post-tragedy.
If Pieces of a Woman looks and feels like rigor mortis setting in at 24 frames-per-second, Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein’s monumental The history of the Seattle Mariners is a living breathing piece of historiography put in motion by their passion for one of the weirdest teams in sports history. In researching the epic timeline of Major League Baseball’s most far flung franchise, the duo capture what it’s like to be obsessed with nuances and contradictions of a club’s identity, and the ongoing tension between individual and collective accomplishments that so often complicates measures of success.
The above image should give you good indication of Bois and Rubenstein’s mind-bending, dimension-stretching formal approach. Call it the most elaborate, kinetic power point presentation ever brought to life, except that description doesn’t even do it justice. It’s also really funny and moving in ways you wouldn’t expect.
Progressing through the Mariners’ disastrous origin years, a multi-decade period riddled with mismanagement, political corruption, arson, and faulty stadium plumbing, the filmmakers introduce key themes of happenstance and heartbreak that will carry through the entirety of its six-part, 3 hours and 40 minute runtime. Underlining all of the fateful missteps and ironies is an unbridled sense of loyalty, joy, and strangeness connected to a team that by most standards has experienced and endless array of forgettable losing campaigns. Still, Bois and Rubenstein find so much comedy and admiration in the team’s creative acts of futility, proving definitively that there are many ways to define victory (and failure for that matter).
While the film’s witty observations and dense statistical breakdowns even make the hapless Mariners of the late 1970s and 1980s seem like captivating subjects, The history of the Seattle Mariners reaches a prolonged apex examining the cross-section of events that elevated four superstars in the 1990s - Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez. Here, we begin to appreciate the limits of individual talent, and just how many things have to go right in order to get to the playoffs, let alone win a World Series.
Transitioning to the 2000s, Bois introduces Japanese import Ichiro Suzuki and ends up summarizing his own skill set as a filmmaker: “We think of the balance between science and sentimentalism as a sliding scale. If you’re more of one you’re less of the other. Ichiro was both in extreme measure.” The history of the Seattle Mariners is equally pliable. It’s no wonder that this iconoclast hit machine, the likes of which baseball has never seen before and probably won’t again, becomes the film’s central symbol of innovation and endurance.
In the end, home is where the heart is for both Bois and Rubenstein. This attraction to nostalgia also ends up being the reason so many Mariners superstars and managers decide to leave the Pacific Northwest for more familiar pastures. Unlike Pieces of a Woman, which posits rather haphazardly that once tainted home can never be home again, The history of the Seattle Mariners understands that it’s a more malleable concept, one that changes with the seasons and lineups every Spring Training.
The film’s true accomplishment comes in capturing the countless ways fans, players, and stat-heads can justify their obsessions through sports history, and ultimately find a real notion of peace and happiness in the minutia of whatever team they follow so religiously. For Bois and Rubenstein, and in turn us the viewer, baseball is very much alive, even when it’s not being played particularly well.
The history of the Seattle Mariners supercut can be viewed here.