Between the Pitches: Baseball and Slow Cinema

Last night, I attended my first baseball game of the season, which was an excellent night as the Minnesota Twins tore through the New York Yankees for a 7-3 win (as a MN native living in New York, it’s fun to see your team take down a massively overpaid one). The weather was perfect, I had great seats, and the game was well fought by both sides.

And then I got thinking. Many of my friends hate watching baseball (many of them hate sports in general, but let’s ignore those for now). They prefer football, basketball, and hockey, claiming baseball is slow, boring, and uneventful. Then I was thinking how many film critics I know are also huge baseball fans: Noel Murray (Atlanta Braves), Matt Singer (New York Mets), Louis Godfrey (San Francisco Giants), and Richard Brody (another Mets fan—Richard told me he went to the second game ever at Shea Stadium) to name a few. These guys are also film critics who appreciate what some call “slow cinema.” I’m thinking films out of the Romanian New Wave, or the works of Bela Tarr, or Jeanne Dielman. And to name some of their favorite releases, we’ve loved films like Poetry, The Tree of Life, Meek’s Cutoff, and We Can’t Go Home Again. And this made me realize that many of the pleasures of watching these films are the same to why I love baseball.

Some background: unlike a lot of people who are dedicated to the game, I never grew up a huge baseball fan. I knew who Kirby Puckett was, and played tee-ball as a toddler (where I’m pretty sure I stuck out). Because it was Minnesota, I always had a firm love of hockey—college, where fights were rare thankfully. Interestingly enough, it was around the time that I started cultivating a love of what some might call more difficult cinema that I also began to appreciate baseball. It certainly helped that it was around the time the Twins had made the M&M boys the center of the team, so I had more reason to root. But as I grew to love artists like Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Carl Theodor Dreyer, I also grew to love Danny Valencia, Michal Cuddyer, and Francisco Liriano.

When I watch baseball now, I become appreciative of every detail: That inside pitch that just shaved the corner for a strike, a fair ball landing in that sweet spot right behind the short stop, and simply the waiting period between every throw. Baseball doesn’t have the constant action of sports like hockey and basketball, nor the intensity of many football plays. It’s America’s pastime, but it’s becoming less and less loved by many generations. But it is in these details why baseball is so similar to slow cinema.

Baseball games run about three hours, which is about how long any other sport takes, but the amount of action that happens is far less. Many of these actions are repetitive. There are over 200 pitches in a baseball game, and many of them (to a less discerning eye) look the exact same. Watching yesterday’s game, I somehow began thinking about Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse. In that film, we watch a father and daughter follow the same tasks over six days. They put on their clothes. They get water from the well. They eat a meal of boiled potatoes. They try to take the horse out. In each one of these days, the stakes are different, and the outcome just slightly changed, as the world might slowly come to an end. In many ways, one can compare the six days of The Turin Horse to the repetitive nature of baseball.

But each one of these pitches can lead to something extraordinary, yet there are no signifiers (visual or audio) that suggest that a home run is going to be hit on the same pitch. In that way, I was reminded of the tension I felt while watching Jeanne Dielman during the second half, as Jeanne slowly makes mistake after mistake. I gasped when the milk bottle was almost spilled, and felt every muscle in my body tense up for the rest of that film. In baseball, I do the same, even though there is nothing telling me that a big sequence is coming up. The tension comes from the inherent nature of the game, and our own belief in the stakes; the visuals stay the same throughout, but yet we feel differently when watching this same action.

The actual pleasures can often be slight as well. Sure, there can be amazing catches or double plays, but the primordial pleasure in baseball is a hit, and a single at that. Hits aren’t exactly fancy. A lot of time it’s just a matter of getting it in that spot outside the reach of the shortstop’s glove, and a man at second base running around to home plate. But it is this type of play that makes us stand up and cheer. This is a lot less exciting than a slam dunk or a touchdown, and the effort to hit and run, at least from an aesthetic point, appears to take less talent and effort than other sports.

But it is these simple pleasures from which baseball derives much of its pleasure, the same way that simple nothingness can create an amount of tension. This reminds me of one of my favorite movies from last year, Meek’s Cutoff. Most of the film is settlers walking quietly through a barren landscape. There are no shootouts and only one wagon crash-cum-standoff. So why is Meek’s Cutoff unbelievably tense? One is the stakes (this is a life and death situation, after all), but also the filmmaking. Kelly Reichardt filmed Meek’s Cutoff in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which limits how much we can see (just as the bonnets on the women limit their field of vision), and thus it creates an essential feeling of being trapped, and almost claustrophobic. Baseball doesn’t use Reichardt’s filmmaking style (I’m not even sure what that would look like), but I can find a baseball game unbelievably tense even though there is no action happening to excite me, just the long sense of tension of what could happen, and the stakes surrounding that pitch.

These stakes can be unbelievably high, because baseball is really the only sport that allows for a final second comeback in quite the same way. In basketball, football, and hockey, you are limited by the amount of time on the clock you have to tie the game, and at a certain point it becomes essentially impossible. In baseball, I have seen teams down to one out come back and score five runs to win a game. That sort of narrative seems not only cinematic, but why baseball never feels “over” until the final pitch makes it into the glove of the catcher. This unpredictability, in which the sport never follows a basic three act structure, once again separates it from more mainstream sports, and in a way, mainstream Hollywood.

Even more than other sports, baseball is obsessed with minutiae. On-base percentage, earned run average, framing performance, one can love a player simply because he’s excellent at running a high or low statistic of some sort. In the same way, some of the best films deal with these small little details that others may miss. In Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, near the end of the film, the male character James makes an off remark about he shaves every other day. On its own, this phrase is meaningless, but if we remember that his wife (or non-wife) complained about this fact earlier in the film, it can be extremely revealing to what we think about the relationship between these two characters. Like baseball, many art house films ask us not to examine what is going on in the foreground in the frame, but often in the background. When you hold a shot for five, ten, or even fifteen minutes, you begin to notice things you didn’t in the first minute, and a revelation appears. The connection to baseball hear is a bit tenuous, but sometimes as baseball fanatics, we love to revel in our players that have skills that others can’t see (this was part of the basis for the Billy Beane era, aka Moneyball). We focus on these details in the game instead. If we just watched for the big hits (not that we don’t enjoy those, but film critics can love action movies just the same), we wouldn’t enjoy baseball as much as other sports. You have to enjoy the nothingness in order to love baseball.

To watch baseball in an era of intensified continuity may seem insane, and even going to a ballpark these days, we are berated with moving images, contests, and music, all that seems to distract from the game itself. Watching the game on TV reveals constant cutting and movement, all which seems to reflect that if we were simply to “watch” the game, we would be bored.* But to watch baseball is something that is dependent on being patient, and reveling in small details instead of great ones. It is much like watching a film where it is less about what happens than how it happens, and the excitement of seeing that. And perhaps that’s why many film critics—those who prefer to see films that challenge them—prefer a sport that does the same.

*This is not that I don’t enjoy television broadcasts, and that editing and piecing together a television broadcast isn’t an art in itself. If you are in New York, the Museum of the Moving Image has a great exhibit where you can see an inning of a Mets game being live directed. It’s quite fascinating to say the least.

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