Wednesday, 6 October 2010
Jews and Baseball - An American Love Story
Jews and Baseball - An American Love Story (2010) dir. Peter Miller
Narrated by Dustin Hoffman
By Greg Klymkiw
Based solely on the title I was so excited to see Jews and Baseball - An American Love Story even though I have never been - in any way, shape or form - an avid sports fan. In spite of this, there are certain sports I love. Sounds dichotomous? Well, if truth be told, it's the WORLD of certain sports that continue to have such a nostalgic hold on me and in the right context - usually a historical one - I get giddy over the very IDEA of sports pictures (fiction or documentary) that focus on certain aspects of atmosphere and theme. Baseball is one such sport, and the thesis implied in the title of this new documentary was immediately tantalizing.
I assumed the picture would touch upon Hank Greenberg who sat out the pennant race in 1934 to observe Yom Kippur, but since there already exists a truly great documentary, Aviva Kempner's The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg what I was really looking forward to was a fun grocery list of great Jews in baseball (from players to management to owners), references to all the great Jewish American writers who wrote so eloquently about baseball - my favourites baseball books penned by those of the Hebraic persuasion being Bernard Malamud's The Natural and Paul Auster's tremendous piece of detective pulp Squeeze Play (under the pseudonym Paul Benjamin) and most importantly, I predicted (wrongly and perhaps unfairly) that we'd be getting a cinematic baseball equivalent to Simcha Jacobovici's documentary rendering of Neal Gabler's Hollywoodism which explored how Jewish immigrants not only invented Hollywood, but through the medium of film, created the American Dream itself.
Here's the deal: We get the grocery list.
Can grocery lists be entertaining? Well, when it comes to the list director Peter Miller and his writer Ira Berkow provide, it's not without merit - the picture in this respect feels exhaustive and many of the subjects are definitely worth knowing about.
Is the movie boring? Never. It delivers up all the Jews in baseball we're ever likely to see assembled under one roof and the film is proficiently made in the eminently user-friendly and compelling way episodes of A&E Biography and other "informational" TV docs are.
Is it unique?
It accomplishes four things very well.
First of all. Miller gives us a sense of what baseball WAS in terms of its romance as a sport, but most importantly, as a unique, magical, romantic world unto itself. This is, frankly, the one aspect of the film that feels personal and moves it a few notches above a typical TV-styled "informational" documentary. The film delivers an experience that explains WHY we all used to love baseball - it was never just the sport, it was the atmosphere: the whiff of hot dogs (mostly, if I'm correct - NOT Kosher nor, at the very least, all-beef), salted peanuts in the shell, the grass that inspired Joe to go shoeless and all those players of every shape and size dotting the fields like cows chewing their cuds but with dazzling bursts of action to rival those jack-hammered upon us by the Jerry Bruckheimers of the world.
Miller yields the magical bedrock upon which baseball rests itself upon and for that, I was truly delighted.
Secondly, while I'm not a sports nut, I understand - as a movie-nut - where this breed comes from. The thing itself is everything, but NOTHING without the minutiae and Miller delivers minutiae in spades. God bless him for this. So will sports fans.
Thirdly, all of the above is narrated by Dustin Hoffman - a great actor with a truly distinctive voice that is absolute perfection for the matter at hand.
Finally, though, what the movie does especially well, is inspire us to think about the much better movie it could have been - a movie that still needs to be made. And yes, this is seemingly unfair, but even the film's title conjures up something so much more interesting and potentially provocative than it delivers upon. Yes, we get (to coin the old MGM adage) more Jews who love baseball than all the Jews in Baseball Heaven, but other than the decent Hank Greenberg profile (a nice encapsulation by Miller that was, alas, already done much better in the aforementioned Kempner documentary), the big question we're left with by the end is: How is this film a UNIQUE "American Love Story"?
Okay, with Hollywoodism, Jacobovici and Gabler were blessed with the clear and irrefutable and (at the time) not-fully-explored notion that Hollywood was invented by Jews who used cinema as an instrument to perpetuate the dreams of all those who fled their shtetls at the end of Russian Cossacks' sabres to seek a new life. The American Dream as created by Hollywood was, without question, an invention of the Jews - one that touched all Americans, even, I might add, boneheaded racists.
Baseball, on the other hand and as played in America was purely Goyische in its invention. Beyond the Greenberg section and the grocery list, I wanted more. I wanted an exploration of Jewish culture strictly with the domain of baseball. What is it to be a Jew in a sport dominated by Anti-Semitic Goyim? What was it like then? What is it like now? What is the history of Anti-Semitism in American baseball? What is it about baseball that causes a Jew to stay within such an Anti-Semitic environment (and let's also not forget, an anti-Black environment also)? Answers to these questions are not answered in any conclusive or compelling way.
And anti-Semitism aside - what is it about Jewish culture that created such a plethora of great ball players? How does a Jew love baseball? Why does a Jew love baseball? What is inherent in the Jewish culture that inspires this love?
On one hand, an answer to such questions might best be found in Shylock's speech where he asks: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?" And furthermore, to paraphrase: "Hath not a Jew the same love of baseball as a Christian?" Well, uh... yes, but the movie itself is called Jews and Baseball - An American Love Story and as such, there's the implication that we're going to get a deeper cultural exploration than the film delivers.
And how about all the Jewish writers, filmmakers, actors and artists who extolled the virtues and values of baseball through their creative work? How about all the Jewish academics and critics who wrote about this creative work? Why don't we hear more from these quarters?
All good questions, I think, and definitely worth exploring in much greater detail than Miller's documentary allows.
Until then, however, Miller's picture will do.
It's unquestionably entertaining, but you, like I, might want something more.
Something that breaks ground - kinda like baseball cleats.
Jews and Baseball - An American Love Story is currently in theatrical release.