Evidence and Processing: The Social Network and Computer Chess

hero_computer_chess_andrew_bujalski

“This is our time!” screams Justin Timberlake at a pertinent moment in The Social Network, a moment meaningful within the context of the film, but also a moment many viewers latched onto for perhaps the wrong reasons. Do a Google search of reviews and think pieces and you’ll find countless words dedicated to how The Social Network is a film of its moment.  “It is a moment in time that befits our time in a way that no other film has achieved in a decade,” exclaimed one blogger. “A pungent examination of how it changed all of our lives overnight” is how another put it, while further resorting to a classic party line about technology by intoning, “The more connected we are technologically, the more disconnected we become in terms of actual discourse.” One couldn’t escape 2010 without thinking that no other film besides The Social Network spoke to “the way we live now,” without defining what that even meant.

Computer Chess, the newest film from Andrew Bujalski, approaches “the now” through antiquated technology in a historical setting. It’s a film so psychologically manic and almost Lynchian in terms of its logic that on its surface, it might appear impossible to decode.  But it’s all there—the telling statements of computer vs. man (man as computer, really) and the changing role of technology in how we think. You want a movie of the now? Look no further.

But The Social Network is also something that Computer Chess is not, which is the digital revolution. This is something Bujalski hints at—an important meeting of harbingers of the future, an emphasis on analog materials like projectors and printouts. But that’s just the buttery surface, the mindset required for what’s actually being explored. However, The Social Network’s narrative and Fincher’s filmic approach tells us about the switch from analog to digital information, about the changes that have effected the digitization of personal space and material.

“Sometimes the eyes give us all the information we get,” writes David Bordwell in his astute examination of Fincher’s film. Eyes are loaded with information inThe Social Network, and where eyes look (or don’t look) tell us what we need to know. More than any other film in Fincher’s career, The Social Network is a film about characters looking at each other. They talk about things, but more than that, they look at each other within a space.

The number of exteriors in The Social Network is exceedingly low; there are almost no establishing shots. The credits play out in a number of large exterior wide shots throughout the Harvard campus—a wholly connected ecosystem of space (an interview in American Cinematographer revealed that this was originally planned as a single, extended tracking shot, which might have further emphasized these relationships). As the technology in the film spreads out of Harvard and onto the world, the connected spaces seem to break apart, so much that even those sitting in the same room feel more disjointed. Fincher slowly breaks down space itself, compartmentalizing characters into a series of one-shots in which they stare back and forth at each other. Compare this to Sorkin’s usual gambit of unifying characters through elongated tracking shots (known lovingly as “The Walk and Talk”), showing the team as a whole. Fincher, along with his editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (who,according to one study, brought the film in at an astonishing 2.9 ASL), instead emphasize the splitting of space. A couple begins together and falls apart. Best friends work together and end up enemies. The only two who stick together are those who are actually a single entity. It’s a film about disconnection, both in terms of its narrative as well as its visual strategy.

This disconnection, however, is part of Fincher’s examination of the digital revolution not as an interest in new technologies, but in the loss of analog ones, something that has percolated through a number of his films. Zodiac, his magnum opus on information, is the most telling statement. It’s a film in which the attempts to catch a serial killer fail specifically because of analog technology—the clotted file flow between police departments, the “stolen” library books without records, the reliance on analog phones (Robert Graysmith’s first date with his future wife is spent waiting around his apartment for a phone call). The absence of digital technology is continually felt through the film’s beautifully rendered CGI backdrops (as well as the Pong game sitting in Avery’s boathouse). The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo takes a similar approach to information, as the film is about negotiations between an analog and a digital character: the old school journalist Blomkvist and the new-age hacker Salander. Both require each other’s skills to solve the case; he uses digital manipulation of photos to create the narrative while she searches map archives and decodes meanings of Bible passages to solve the mystery.

Where are the analog technologies in The Social Network? If Zodiac and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are about criminal information, then The Social Network follows personal information. The film’s most telling moment is the reveal of the first deposition. “That’s not what happened,” Mark retorts as the film abruptly transitions to a future moment at a deposition. From there, the film becomes a series of assertions of fact based on depositions as opposed to hard evidence, on what one can manipulate because the information is not based in the digital. This slowly changes as the story progresses—in fact, what finally incriminates Mark are the e-mails he’s sent. When pressed by a lawyer regarding his long-delayed e-mail about the site’s functionality, he cracks, going into a long monologue about the rain and his other worries. The thing that ruins Mark’s chances with getting back together with Erica? A public blog post. (“The Internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink.”)

What is so curious about this view of technology is that it runs counterintuitive to our usual understandings of the digital’s ability to manipulate truth. The Social Network addresses our relationship to technology thus but not in any way that speaks to our psychology. Instead, it is about the manifestation of evidence that the digital world provides. Space might be compartmentalized, but it is also singularized (everyone has a page). Once-private information now becomes public information. While digital is often spoken about in terms of its manipulability (and Fincher is a master manipulator of frame, color, texture), it is mostly about digital information as a form of concrete evidence, the same promise that Zodiac and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo bring. In Fincher’s world, digital is not lies but a means to truth. Graysmith can stare at Arthur Leigh Allen all day, but without DNA evidence or surveillance tapes, he can only stare at a face that won’t provide any answers

Fincher is a physical director; Bujalski is a psychological one. But even when reverting to dream sequences (which Computer Chess does) or bland exposition, he still depends on audio-lingual  devices to clue us into psychology. (Which is why the story of Funny Ha Ha’s written “umms” has always been essential to describing the film—it’s less an attempt at realism of conversation that to incite specifics about each character’s inner thought process). Visually, Computer Chess is the anti-Social Network; it’s decidedly unattractive (black and white produced by old VHS cameras) and the frames are more improvisatory (or at least appear so) compared to Fincher’s exacting compositions. Bujalski takes a documentary-like approach (including smudges on the screen) to the chess competition between computer engineers so he can give a sense that he’s ripped a hole in space-time so we may observe the past more clearly.

“It’s committing suicide!” the young, neurotic engineer Peter exclaims as his team’s computer seems to implode. “It has no will,” retorts his team’s mentor. Computer Chess might not say much about the analog technology it imposes as a backdrop, but it says plenty about the way our brains have slowly formed to become more computer-like. The film is a comedy, or at least has numerous comic moments, and many of Bujalski’s characters are exaggerated in manner. But through a series of interactions, we come to understand that these characters think like computers. Some of this can be broad and bizarre, such as a character who acts as an interface for another silent character (“No. You have to tell it to me in order to tell it to him.”). Other moments are more nuanced, such as the professor’s astonishment that Peter does not require exercise or coffee to continue programming, or Shelly’s confusion when Peter demands, during what could otherwise be a late-night sexual encounter, to “make her own move” during an experiment. The human beings continually take on the traits of their computers—their subservience to logic (Peter’s sees unlimited possibilities in chess’s 64 squares, but nothing outside of it), their emphasis on perfect inputs (the explanation of why one drinks “three” scotches instead of two or four) and proneness to glitches (Papageorge’s final tragedy, to be forever lost in a loop like the machine before him). And, of course, that’s not to mention the hallucination of an endless series of cats…

Meanwhile, the computers act more sentient than the people programming them. The concept of the chess games itself even reverse-engineers the usual user relationship, as Bujalski observes time after time players waiting for the machines to tell them what to do. In fact, the real main character of the film is TSAR 3.0, the (apparently) suicidal computer. Peter realizes that TSAR is not only is acting on its own will, but when he tests it against a human, only then does it “adapt” and finally win. Later, his colleague recalls a memory as TSAR turns on its user, asking it about its soul. “ASK YOUR QUESTIONS,” the simple codec reads, as if, as one character describes earlier, “real artificial intelligence” becomes “artificial real intelligence.” When TSAR is asked about his own soul, he responds with the ultrasound picture of a fetus, an image that defies expectations. During TSAR’s meltdown, we hear a series of dialogue recorded from the film, as if it had been spying on the various players (as part of its contract with the Pentagon?). TSAR’s own mind and soul haunt the film, his own self-actualization a parallel to Peter’s own sexual becoming.

This is all played for strange and broad humor, but there’s no doubt that Computer Chess is developed to mirror the contemporary relationship between machines and men (and an occasional lady, who must be constantly gawked at for being a lady). The film’s characters might be parody, but they recognizably mirror our neuroses about technology—not the fear that the computer will destroy us, but that we must cede control to the digital world. We can’t even go to a restaurant anymore without an interaction to check Yelp scores (which might be written by other humans, but not ones that we know) or pull out Google Maps on an iPhone when stepping out of a subway platform. Even an easy riff on “computer dating” is made more nuanced when Shelley discusses things in terms of traits and advantages, an overtaking of logic over feeling. One of Computer Chess’s perhaps somewhat shallow gambits is comparing the various computer geeks to a cult-like spiritual group that occupies the conference room during the off hours (made “other” by the presence of their African group leader, who is “probably from Detroit,” as one snide geek remarks). Their odd byways and open connections, even if a little too easy in comedic value, are posed as inherently opposite to those of the mechanical men of the day hours. But in many ways, Bujalski’s point is that, to another world and time, the language of the geeks is just as inaccessible and cultish as those who practice spiritualism. Is our ability to understand and comprehend Computer Chess simply a product of the fact that its language and ideologies are those that currently dominate our own technological culture? Perhaps this is Computer Chess’s ultimate point about its analog technology; that pioneers are bound always to be incomprehensible to their present.

So here we have two movies, both which I am told are about one thing, but which are ultimately about the opposite. The Social Network concerns epistemology—our way of knowing how to comprehend the outside world, and more importantly, other people around us. It’s a cynical film that shows how our supposed disconnection is actually removing the ambiguities of real life interaction (In a Facebook world, Mark would not be sidelined by a break up, but instead see the writing on the, excuse the pun, wall). Computer Chess explores how our interior lives are slowly taking shape by investigating what is (at one point literally) inside our brains, our new forms of process and output, of reflection and action in a world where everything must fit into the box. You can try and program a new model of thinking and building, live on the edge of drugs and wander the halls late at night, but make one mistake, and you might get lost in a loop lost in a loop lost in a loop lost ….

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Thanks to Jim Gabriel for reviewing a late draft of this piece and helping me put the finishing touches. A fresh pair of eyes is the best gift for a writer, and Jim is no slouch when it comes to editing and calling one out on BS.

Secondly, I owe Thomas Elsaesser thanks for his seminar where we first discussed the role of analog technology in Zodiac and I first brought up the thought that The Social Network’s depositions might be seen as an analog form as well.

Expressive Esoterica in the 21st Century—Or: What Is Vulgar Auteurism?

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
The following post was originally developed in a graduate seminar I participated in earlier this year on the state of contemporary cinephilia. I originally became interested in exploring Vulgar Auteurism after researching and talking to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for a podcast. So for a half dozen weeks, I watched  the “canon” of Vulgar Auteurism and read every post, comment, tumblr, and criticism that had been written on the subject. What I have developed below is part of a project that I hope to bring to next year’s conference for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies. However, because Vulgar Auteurism has become somewhat of a hot debate after Calum Marsh’s Village Voice piece on the subject, I’ve decided to post a partial part of my work on the subject in order to give a full context and understanding how we can learn about contemporary cinephilia from the movement. As always, all feedback and comments are appreciated.

 

September 14, 2012 was a day of major anticipation for cinephiles that follow contemporary cinema. It was the official opening of auteur Paul Thomas Anderson’sThe Master (2012), a historical psychosexual epic shot in 70mm with two larger than life performances. However, there was another group of cinephiles excited for another release by Paul Anderson…Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution(2012), the fifth film in the zombie franchise starring Milla Jovovich, was released in 3,000 theaters without a single review to its name. For most critics who later watched the film, Retribution was a slog (Rotten Tomatoes describes the consensus: “[the franchise] seems to get more cynical and lazy with each film”).[i] But this set of very special cinephiles saw not just silly entertainment, but one made with as much craft and care as The Master. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, in his review at Mubi, argues, “Anderson is uncynical. His work is eye stuff: entertainment that rewards the viewer for watching rather than for being clever.”[ii] Critics disagree on films all the time, but what is going on with Retribution, and many other disregarded films of its like, is a new trend in cinephilia. Welcome to Vulgar Auteurism.

Since Jonathan Rosenbaum called cinema dead and cinephilia the next step, critics and academics have spent countless words trying to define “contemporary cinephilia.” Some of this issue, perhaps, is that defining contemporary cinephilia as a whole is an impossible task—one must encompass bloggers, democratization, torrent cultures, DVDs and Blu-Rays, mashups, podcasts, social media, and the vast amount of stuff. To better understand cinephilia, I propose that instead of making an encompassing vision, we should instead take an in-depth examination of a small sect. Certainly, the cinephiles who laud and champion Vulgar Auteurism fit that definition.

What is Vulgar Auteurism? There is currently no set definition—the term is not only extremely new, but also founded on message boards instead of coined by a major critic or theorist—so it remains only vaguely defined. The closest “official” definition comes from Mubi writer Adam Cook: “A filmmaker who works within popular culture, making films defined by qualities of mass entertainment like genre, violence, pulp, etc. that still retains a thematic and aesthetic continuity over their body of work. They are often, but not always, mistakenly degraded for the supposed ‘vulgar’ nature of their work.”[iii] At its most basic, Vulgar Auteurism is about the work of unheralded contemporary directors of “disreputable quality:” Anderson, Michael Bay, Neveldine/Taylor, and Tony Scott remain the most cited.[iv] While it can be seen in a tradition of Cahiers Du Cinema’s auteurist moment in the 1950s, as well as an extension of Andrew Sarris’s Expressive Esoterica category in The American Cinema, Vulgar Auteurism moves away from some of these properties and toward an appreciation of the image as an image. As the blogger Sean Gillman observes, “These arguments tend to focus on the artistry of the filmmakers’ image-construction over their thematic content (philosophical, political, etc) or narrative qualities (story, plot, character, dialogue, etc).”[v] Gilman is both right and wrong: Vulgar Auteurism, as I will demonstrate, is primarily interested in the image (or better yet, the screen and the surface), which can only go so far in legitimating the films and filmmakers. But for its most articulate writers, Vulgar Auteurism examines the thematic weight of those images as well, which explore new paradigms of 21st-century culture.

Where did the term come from? No one knows exactly—it seems to have been an unconscious movement before it ever had a name. The breakthrough moment appears to have come in 2007 when the Canadian-based film journal Cinema Scope published a vitriolic defense of Tony Scott following the release of Déjà Vu (2006).[vi] The journal later published a piece on the work of Michael Mann entitled “Vulgar Auteurism,” though it certainly did not theorize the term along the lines of its conception now.[vii]In 2009, Mubi forum user John Lehtonen noticed the term being used in negative connotations on various threads, and instead flipped its meaning via his own comments on the site (which employs many of Cinema Scope’s writers). From there, Mubi andCinema Scope grew in popularity for their incisive writings on directors like Scott, Michael Mann, Bay, as well as even directors working in Direct-To-Video features, such as films by John Hyams and Isaac Florentine. All this was legitimized in 2011 by the appointment of then 24-year-old Vishnevetsky as the co-host of Roger Ebert’s At the Movies, giving Mubi an unprecedented authority to represent contemporary cinephilia. Vulgar Autuerism had its watershed moment during 2012 with a series of events that led to the term’s knowledge in the major critical landscape. The death of Tony Scott led to a series of pieces that pushed for his work to be seen in the tradition of the avant-garde. Critics outside Vulgar Auteirsm’s bastion reviewed and praised Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (Hyams, 2012), a film that was originally planned as a direct-to-video feature. Finally, John Lehtonen made a list on Mubi dedicated to Vulgar Auteurism (“Or the Scott-Mann-Baysians,” to play the Cahiers angle even more),[viii] and a Tumblr began posting images from various Vulgar Auterist films.[ix]

What is the most notable about these critics is that many of them are not solely writing about these derisive action films: Vishnevetsky has written on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard as much as the late work of Jean-Claude Van Damme. R. Emmet Sweeney writes substantial posts on lost Hollywood classics. Mubi is better known for its support of contemporary world cinema (often films that only make it to festivals). Cinema Scope often features long articles on the avant-garde. Like Cahiers writers, the Vulgar Auteurist critics are not just a series of fanboys who want to watch things explode, but take “film art” very seriously.

But what is the “art” of Vulgar Auteurism? Again, Vulgar Auteurist critics seem most fascinated by the images that these filmmakers create—and perhaps not the image, but the screengrab. Vulgar Auteurism’s most ardent critics seem to base their primary interest in these films on their aesthetic values, often admitting to the short coming of other cinematic elements. On Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), blogger Scott Nye writes, “It’s electric and invigorating, constantly abandoning any notions as to what Scott could be trying to ‘say’ with it in favor of some very pure expressionism.”[x] Calum Marsh, viewing Day of Reckoning, notes a similar trend: “Its aesthetic influences, which range from David Lynch to Gaspar Noé, all but guaranteed the film’s elevation from the slums of B-movie obscurity to some kind of vulgar-auteurist master class, where a surrealist action niche nobody asked for could suddenly be filled.”[xi] And Fernando F. Croce notes Michael Bay’s “aesthetic is a steroidal distillate for those pleasure-seekers sitting in the dark, and in Bad Boys II (2003) the peddler seems bored with his own heady substance.”[xii] Certainly, Vulgar Auteurism relies too heavily on the pause button: the ability to rip images from their original narrative context and give them their own meaning outside of the film itself. The aesthetic of the image can be striking—hues of orange and blue crashing against each other, intensely symmetrical frames, highly striking uses of focus—but often it means removing the image from what is being represented in the image.

Perhaps then, one should not give Vulgar Auteurism the credit it aspires toward if it is only a series of aesthetic values, truly embodying a “vulgar” attitude by refusing to engage in any substantive matters. Writing on Tony Scott, Adrian Martin questions what substance can be derived from his images:

Scott’s highly cultivated way of achieving his jazzy effects frequently courts contradiction, paradox, and generally impossible conceptual constructs as a way of ‘thinking through’ any hot topic at hand—but always nestled within, and chafing against, various solidly (sometimes depressingly) conventional Hollywood narrative models, through-lines, mythologies and ideologies.[xiii]

However, I find myself somewhat skeptical that all films that fall under Vulgar Auteurism are necessarily vapid and airless, and one can only find qualities within their own aesthetic predilections. As much as Vulgar Auteurism seeks to remove form from substance, form is inevitably tied to substance—critics that attack Vulgar Auteurism focus on the vapidity of their narratives, but I would argue for many of these directors, their textual issues are being worked through the image, which begins to take on the narrative and thematic weight in unexpected ways.

One excellent example would be the work of Neveldine/Taylor. On their surface, films like Crank: High Voltage (2009) and Gamer (2009) look ugly, misogynist, racist, indulgently violent, inarticulately edited, and frankly morally objectionable. But imbedded in these films are a societal critique not too far from Jean-Luc Godard’sWeek-End (1967) or David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). Their films play the line between parody, exploitation, and auto-critique, without ever exposing a moral center to give the spectator an easy access point. In this way, their films are perhaps the best example of Vulgar Auteurism: each image feels ripped from a new approach to filmmaking that betrays any classical notions of what makes a “good movie,” but instead uses contemporary cultural influences (video games, MTV, Internet porn, and more) to redefine how films can view society. Their shots and editing choices, free of any classicism in their montage, allows the images to become saliently inventive and perplexingly original. The images thus work through their critiques of decadent societal norms in the most deranged way possible. Vishnevetsky writes that Gamer “is ugly, stupid, full of bad music and bad costumes, but it could be no other way. I wouldn’t trade it for a dozen ‘well-shot,’ ‘well-written,’ ‘carefully edited’ movies.”[xiv] To not enjoy watching a Neveldine/Taylor film is perhaps part of their point (High Voltage ends with a burning Jason Statham flipping off the screen, perhaps a “Fuck You De Cinema” to Godard’s “Fin De Cinema”), but to dismiss their films entirely would seem somewhat specious—something new is happening here.

Why do we need Vulgar Auteurism? Certainly, in the age of contemporary cinephilia, it seems more difficult for any film or filmmaker to remain undiscovered by someone, and perhaps the movement’s critics are pushing their searches to, well, their vulgar limits. There are a few important points to note: many Vulgar Auteurist critics do not limit themselves to only the work of contemporary directors, but often point to the work of 1980s and 1990s directors like Paul Verhoeven, John Carpenter, John McTiernan, and Kathryn Bigelow as the major predecessors. However, most of these directors have either entered mainstream appreciation or, even worse in their views, academic appreciation—they can no longer be “claimed” by the margin. So Vulgar Auteurism pushes to the limits of where cinema is being made (especially now the straight to DVD market, today’s equivalent of Republic Pictures), sifting through Hollywood’s least-respected films to discover something they can claim as their own.[xv] Cinephilia has always been founded on the idea that being on the margin is always better than the center, and Vulgar Auteurism simply is the next step of that.

More power to them, I would argue. A personal note here: I began this project because I became acquainted with many of these writers via social media and emails, and decided to explore what they found so immensely pleasurable in these films. I began skeptical, and leave a halfway convert. I found myself transfixed by the motions and symmetries in Anderson’s films, the digital fluidity in Mann’s late work, the abstract editing of Scott, and the heaviness of existence in Hyams. I perhaps saw more in these films—textures relating to network societies, new forms of space and time, digitally modified identities and avatars—than most Vulgar Auteurist critics would even admit. Each film I saw had something worth discussing, unique paradigms that other films of the last 15 years of cinema have only addressed in the most mundane of ways. Each film built on the medium’s history, those that came before it, while pushing it toward the future.

More than the films itself, Vulgar Auteurism shows how cinephilia continues to thrive in new ways—not through the intake of cinema, but on outtake: a pushing forth of new meanings and ideologies onto the rest of film culture, coming from the most unexpected of places. Whether its legitimate or not, is up to the individual.

[i] Rotten Tomatoes, “Resident Evil: Retribution (2012),” Last modified Sept 30, 2012,http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/resident_evil_retribution/.

[ii] Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “Notebook Reviews: Paul W.S. Anderson’s ‘Resident Evil: Retribution 3D,’” Mubi Notebook, Sept 17, 2012, http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/now-in-theaters-gamer-neveldine-taylor-usa.

[iii] Adam Cook to Mubi online forum, June 2012, Vulgar Auteur Rankings, http://mubi.com/topics/vulgar-auteur-ranking?page=1.

[iv] While it is mostly American action films, there are a few exceptions—notably, the comic work of the Farrley brothers and the work of Hong Kong director Johnnie To.

[v] Sean Gilman, “Army of Milla: On the Resident Evil Movies and Modern Auteurism” The End of Cinema (blog), April 16, 2013, http://theendofcinema.blogspot.com/2013/04/army-of-milla-on-resident-evil-movies.html.

[vi] Christopher Huber, and Mark Peranson, “World Out of Order: Tony Scott’s Vertigo,” Cinema Scope, no. 29 (2007): 36-39.

[vii] Andrew Tracy, “Vulgar Auteurism: The Case of Michael Mann,” Cinema Scope, no. 40 (2009): 25-30.

[viii] Jack Lehtonen, “Vulgar Auteurism: A Guide Or: The ‘Mann-Scott-Baysians,’” Mubi, September 2012,http://mubi.com/lists/vulgar-auteurism-a-guide-or-the-mann-scott-baysians.

[ix] http://vulgarauteurism.tumblr.com/

[x] Scott Nye, “Tony Scott in Stills,” Rail of Tomorrow (blog), Oct 8, 2012,http://www.railoftomorrow.com/2012/10/tony-scott-in-stills.html.

[xi] Calum Marsh, “Blu-Ray Review: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” Slant Magazine, Jan 17, 2013,http://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/review/universal-soldier-day-of-reckoning.

[xii] Fernando F. Croce, “Three Takes #4 Michael Bay’s ‘Bad Boys II’,” Mubi Notebook, Apr 22, 2013,http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/three-takes-4-michael-bays-bad-boys-ii.

[xiii] Adrian Martin, “Start Me Up,” Mubi Notebook (blog), Nov 26, 2012, http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/start-me-up.

[xiv] Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “Now in Theaters: ‘Gamer’ (Neveldine / Taylor, USA),” Mubi Notebook, September 8, 2009, http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/now-in-theaters-gamer-neveldine-taylor-usa.

[xv] There are plenty of directors who are certainly not considered vulgar auteurs that direct action films: Rob Cohen, Brett Ratner, Joel Schumacher, Uwe Boll, McG, and Zac Snyder remain adamantly outside the conversation.

Radical Democracy: Mythos and Politics in Saving Private Ryan

Screen shot 2013-04-07 at 5.33.32 PM

“A compass points to true north, but it gives no indication of the swamps and marshes along the way.  If you just use the compass you will get stuck, and what use is knowing true north if you are drowned in a swamp?”
Lincoln

I had the immense pleasure of revisiting Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryanfor the first time in at what must be at least over half a decade if not longer. It appears, since its release, the film has been attacked more and more for essentially being a piece of propaganda—well made and beautifully shot propaganda, but propaganda nonetheless. I’m told that Saving Private Ryan valorizes the soldiers of World War II while slyly attacking the generation of both soldiers and films of the Vietnam Era.

Certainly Saving Private Ryan asks us the memorialize all those who fought in the Greatest Generation, but what the film doesn’t do is ask us to see their heroics in the same way American culture often does. Saving Private Ryan is essentially a response to the Norman Rockwell way of life, often using his iconography to question what the good society is. In the end, Spielberg proposes a radical social democracy that mirrors Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, where democracy and our relationship to it is not built on the principles of the state, but a series of small intimate relationships built around living the good life.

Let me stray for a second and talk about Lincoln, Spielberg’s other film about the relationship between the state and its subjects. Lincoln is essentially a working through of the radical notion of Hegelian positivism and the dangers that come with it. The truly erudite critic Theo Panayides found fault in Lincoln for being too much on the “right: side of history, which drains some of the narrative tension, but I think that’s where a new tension develops out of: how far are you willing to compromise everything other moral bone in your body for what you know to be true and right? Throughout the film, Lincoln makes every side deal, rhetoric trick, and sly move he can to fight for the righteous side of history. His character knows that in the end, the bill will matter, and what led to it will not—the classic “ends justify the means.” Some might want to question if this is what Spielberg believes, given how bombastic the film can be at points. However, part of this is how closely he plays his cards to his chest in revealing this side, allowing him to work both sides: accept the surface and you see “history being made,” dig a bit deeper, and you’ll see the cynicism at work.

Saving Private Ryan operates in a similar moral vacuum, where the state accepts grand gestures at any cost. The mission? The United States army relieves a soldier of duty so be with his family, an act of great kindness. The real mission? A sacrifice of eight men for the life of one publicity stunt, whose lives have no value beyond the propaganda they can create. But orders are orders, and must be followed. Why do the higher ups send Captain Miller (Tom hanks) and crew on a suicide mission? Certainly the case of the Sullivan brothers, named checked in the film, rests heavy on the American soul. But the most essential statement comes from Abraham Lincoln himself, now in the form of a letter read by Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell). Marshall, attempting to convince the various army personnel to allow the mission, reads aloud the following letter, sent to a Mrs. Lydia Bixby of Massachusetts:

“I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

Considered one of the greatest works of rhetoric ever produced, the Bixby letter also has a troubled history. The scholar Catherine Gunther Kodat, in what is an otherwise atrociously silly and overly critical reading of the film entitled “Saving Private Property: Steven Spielberg’s American Dreamworks,” takes us through some of the odd case relating to the letter.

The Bixby letter made its first public appearance in the pages of the Boston Evening on 25 November 1864. The letter had an editorial preface in which it was claimed that the indigent Widow Bixby had six sons enlisted in the Union army; five of them were killed in battle, and the sixth was being treated at the Readville Army Hospital. F. Lauriston. Bullard notes in his study the letter was immediately recognized as a triumph of rhetorical elegance and rapidly reprinted in the Boston Traveler, the Boston Journal, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and the United States Army and Navy Journal—despite the fact that just three days after the letter was first printed, a notice appeared in the Boston Advertise announcing that one of the sons was not dead, but captured…In the months and years following the appearance of the letter, a series of investigations (most by curious journalists) established that of Mrs. Bixby’s five (not six) sons, two were killed in action, one was honorably discharged, one deserted, and one was a prisoner of war whom may have deserted to the enemy. Mrs. Bixby herself came in for close scrutiny: she was a Virginia native and an “ardent Southern sympathizer” with “little good to say of President Lincoln.”…[Finally], The long-held suspicion has been that the letter was not written by Lincoln at all, but by his personal secretary John Hay.

The first reaction I’m sure many would have is how dare Spielberg not check his historical facts on something like this? Or, one might instead ask, if Spielberg knows the very tumultuous history of the letter, why did he feel the need to include it?

The facts are facts, but the one thing that can never destroy the Bixby letter is the sentiment and rhetoric behind it. This letter is read aloud not by Hanks and his crew, but by a general far away from the carnage. For him, the details don’t matter, but instead he is interested in preserving the American mythology of our nation. My suspicions that Spielberg may have used the letter ironically came together in a scene preceding it when we see a series of women typing the KIA telegrams to mothers and fathers while overlaying the voiceovers of sergeants who speak nothing like the soldiers we later meet, their voices a fabrication of the delicate touch the women’s fingers bring to the typerwriter. Like Lincoln, Spielberg presents a world where the state is willing to preserve a mythological democracy is preserved at any cost.

So eight soldiers are sent on a mission that they have no choice but to follow, and thus must create their own purpose out of why they’ll do the mission. What Spielberg does through the film is not look at this as a story of eight men who were willing to sacrifice for some greater good, whether returning a mother to her son or the defeat of evil in Europe, but those who are caught in an existential crisis. Te recurring gag of the soldiers muttering “fubar” ends as a joke when it’s revealed to be “fucked beyond all recognition,” but that also speaks to how these soldiers literally see: their recognition of democratic values are literally lost to the point they cannot recognize them. The operations of American mythology—still present in almost each one of Janusz Kaminski’s careful lighted frames of silhouettes along a background—are always at play, but just as in Lincoln, it’s the cynical questioning of what those frames really represent that is being fought for through this film. The “mystery” of Miller’s identity turns out to be nothing but a school teacher. The last memory Ryan has of his brothers includes sneaking up on his brother during coitus and burning down his family farm. Spielberg exposes the human fractures that the American mythos of democracy attempts to build through grand gestures.

So if our great American myths are lost, what can we build out of it? As Hanks lies dying, he grabs Ryan and tells him, “Earn this.” Earn our deaths because the mission itself was bullshit. Do something great so our lives are not lost in vein. The film cuts back to its framing narrative, of a much older Ryan staring at the grave. He asks his wife, “Did I live a good life?” He cannot say—none of us can because besides knowing he has become a family man, we know nothing of his life after the war. But he has to know because it’s the only way he can justify the pain he brought so many for a mission that never mattered, a publicity stunt created under the sham of democracy. But he knows that the good life is something he doesn’t fight for because of some philosophy or social value, but something that he owes to the men who died for him.

In a way, Saving Private Ryan’s brilliant coda recalls the end of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, not only because I’m covered in tears as it happens, but because it exposes how various institutions that are built on grand gestures often fail at the human level, leaving the spectator to find their own meaningful point to human existence. While A.I. raises this question to “what did the human race really mean?,”Saving Private Ryan localizes this to the state of American democracy in the post-Vietnam era, just as boldly and perhaps even more strikingly than any of the Vietnam films. But Spielberg also proposes a solution: a new radical democracy where our relationships are not to between ourselves and the state, but ourselves and those around us, that cause change in our lives. The film’s emphasis on communication: hearing and seeing oneself in another, becomes paramount in the director’s attempt to rebuild the world based on relationships between men. Spielberg certainly glorifies the Greatest Generation, but not re-producing the same old mythos, and instead using cinema to create a new mythos in which they are memorialized as men who fought for each other more than anything else, asking us to rebuild are notions of the good life not on grand gestures, so often covered with questionable lies underneath, but on the personal and the intimate.

Fearless: Jazmín López’s Leones

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“A long tracking shot is always a statement of liberation.”
-Robert Kolker

“The greatest novelty of the recent cinema is the appearance of worthy treatments of religious subject matters.”
-Andre Bazin

Cinema began stationary. Sandow flexed his muscles for the camera. The train rushed into the station. Melies and his crew moved into the frame to perform their action. The camera recorded, but it was a dispassionate observer. The camera was not yet the camera.

Once the camera moved, it also began a new life. It became expression embodied. It became a life force with its own gestures and language. This is not to discount the beauty of the stationary camera—Ozu made this his life blood. But a moving camera creates its own narrative, beyond the characters and beyond the text perhaps. It becomes a sensuous, breathing validation of art.

Leones is a film that validates the history of tracking shots while also pushing it into a new future. Leones is only about cinema in the way every film can be claimed to be about the cinematic process. Its director, Argentina’s Jazmín López, utilizes the purpose of the tracking shot in so many unique, forceful, and honestly humbling new forms. But the film is also a journey of the spirit—a film that doesn’t just imply cinema can depict a spiritual journey, but can itself be a spiritual journey. This is a film that takes the camera and morphs it into Virgil, Dante’s guide through the beyond. Have I mentioned yet that Leones is an outright masterpiece and perhaps one of the great works of world cinema of our contemporary moment? Allow the hyperbole.

Leones takes place in nature. The time is unknown. The exact location of this forest is irrelevant. After beginning with a series of intense almost Brakhage-like flashing lights, the images open the way you might expect a Dardennes film to open: we’re tracking a young girl, Isabel, through the woods. But the camera begins to take a life of its own. Its movements are not defined by her, but instead curiously float around and near her, not necessarily focused on her emotions. She moves left to a tree; the camera moves right, beginning to focus on a new detail. Soon the camera holds back as she walks forward, observing the world around her. Is she a traveler in the woods, or do the woods travel trough her?This is only are set up shot, but already López, working with

This is only are set up shot, but already López, working with Gerry and Elephant camera operator Matias Mesa as her DP, has established three major things: 1) A main protagonist in Isabel: an unformed mass of puberty without concrete identity 2) the forest: mystical, magical, and perhaps more alive than it will ever let us know 3) the camera: a being of its own, working as a guide between the human spirit and the spirit of nature.

But these rules are not concrete—characters will change their inherent nature, nature will change its inherent character, and the camera refuses to only follow one particular style. Isabel emerges as part of a group of teens, weaving in and out of the frame, often to delightful surprise (never has a director used the appearance of characters emerging from behind the camera to such great effect, as López uses here in a few crucial moments). They walk with some purpose. A beginning and an end are hinted at, but never feel like they can exist with some form of linearity. The teenagers play a game where they attempt to create a six-word short story as Hemingway did. Some of them are one word to big or short, some are silly and reflect the naughty minds of these teenagers. Others are suddenly profound, but lost in the deluge.

What does it all mean? Leones has been criticized by some for having plenty of mystery without answer, but nothing too concrete that it too easily let’s the viewer interpret all of its elements as they want. This is certainly true— López’s dialogue never offers up any obvious answers about why these kids are here and what their goals are. I feel I was able to intuit most of what “happened,” but I think I more importantly doubt that Leones is tough to interpret except for the agonistic. It’s a film about finding belief in a world of where shapes, people, nature, and cinema all take form in amorphous states. Leones is not a series of non-sequiturs but a battleground between the concrete and the abstract—a young girl finally has sex with her boyfriend to define herself as a woman, another breaks off from the group to define herself as an individual, a gun takes a brief moment as an object of violence before being relegated to only an object. The film plays with these genre elements, but it avoids using genre as a template as much as one possibility of understanding. But it’s everything that’s beyond the text that defines what happens within it.

Through all of this, the camera continually re-defines itself. Godard claimed that a tracking shot was a moral decision, yet López’s camera acts beyond a definition of morality, in a world where the classical morals of society have seemed to disappear along with any standard forms of narratology. And with that, her camera becomes liberation. The tracking shots allow us to realize the boundless freedom we can have when we emerge beyond concreteness. Even though editing allows space and time to flow freely in cinema, López all but eliminates editing to focus on how the exact opposite can do that as well Because there’s no other way to do this, I must discuss these tracking shots in detail, or at least choose a selection of the ones that floored me:

  1. Our five characters walk beyond a creek into a pass. The camera stays behind. It begins to turn, and time turns with it. We cannot recognize it, but time now moves in a lapse, as we see shadows blink across the leaves in the forest. All the way around as nature evolves through the bits of motion. The camera returns to where it was. The characters emerge from behind the camera, unsure of whether this is where they have been before. The shadows have changed, but they have not.
  2. Our characters have made it to a gorgeous lake. They have already played in the water. They begin playing a game of volleyball, but we realize that there is no volleyball. Yet the camera moves in handheld as if there was a volleyball, as Antonioni did with mimes in Blow-Up. The camera turns to Isabel, her hair crowned with leaves and flowers. The camera suddenly moves to her feet and along the group to their clothes they have discarded. One boy approaches and takes out the gun, he brings it to the lake and attaches an orange to it and shoots it into the water. Is this her nightmare?
  3. An iPod rests along a log. It repeats a recorded conversation between the teenagers that took place before the narrative. The camera tracks along the log from the iPod to the end of the earbuds. But the earbuds are long and soon enough they do not appear as separate from the log but part of it. The dialogue reveals an essential key moment, one we cannot recognize, but the forest can.
  4. The characters have found a house. This is perhaps what they were looking for, but it remains locked. The camera tracks around the house as the characters attempt to open its boarded doors and windows. As the camera makes it way around the house, it centers on Isabel, who enters an area of intense violet flowers. She walks among these flowers, the camera changing focus to make her the only concrete object among this mass color green and violet character. She is lost and remarks on her frustration, but soldiers on nonetheless, rejoining her friends.
  5. The secret of the narrative has been revealed. The camera tracks around a car, seemingly out of place in these woods. It observes its details, each of which could lead to a separate conclusion of the narrative. The camera slowly turns back to the woods. We see a spark of intense light far beyond. The camera slowly moves up, down, left, and right, through the various entanglements of this jungle. By the time we’ve reached the intense light, which suggests a heavenly presence, the camera moves to an area where a mist rains down on the forest, cleansing it. As the camera turns, the narrative turns on itself again, almost resetting itself.
  6. A final shot. A new location. A sudden change from the flowing grace of a spirit to a hard handheld. The softness replaced by a determined hardness. A final destination along the horizon. Movement till the end. Till the body returns to the final spirit. The concrete enters the shapeless. Suddenly representation itself ends. Colors replaces index. Music replaces faces. The lyrics ask us, “Do you believe in rapture?” We do.

What does it mean for the cinema to be spiritual? Bresson was a noted Catholic, and made a filmic aesthetic that reflected some of his philosophy. Weerasethakul’s puzzling and delightful narratives that completely distill reality and time are influenced by his Buddhist traditions. López certainly feels indebted to Weerasethakul, but her cinematic approach is nothing like he would ever do. Is this a new age spiritualism? Perhaps. But to be more insane, it feels like a belief in cinema itself.

Since its propagation in society, cinema has existed in a moral context. It has both been a part of deciding our morality as well as challenging it. But few have considered the medium of cinema itself a location of spiritualism. The Cashiers writers turned to cinema as a replacement for their church, and so have many cinephiles done so. The question then became, what could the cinema do to confirm their own meaning of lives? How can cinema dictate a worldview to the viewer through its own devices?

Again, we return to the tracking shot. A shot beyond character, narrative, but always held by the idea of a spatial proximity, even if time becomes infinite. Godard called the tracking shot a moral choice because he was often refusing to cut away from what he saw as the degradation of society—Weekend’s traffic jam andTout Va Bien’s supermarket come to mind. But this is not López, who works in not an amoral world, but toward an idea that hasn’t truly embraced concepts of morality, somewhere in the “in between.” Her tracking shots ask us to break from concreteness and definitions because they remain amorphous—always clear to the viewer, but never defined by a formal rigor.

Her teens reflect this. Their minds and bodies are still amorphous in some ways, not concretely defined as adults. What do they believe in? Where are they heading? Where did they come from? The iPod, as well as a fantastic shot inside a BMW, can help you place together a story about why these kids are on this journey. But to do so would be to deny Lopez’s main interest in these kids truer journey: this is not a coming-of-age tale in which characters discover who they are, but one in which they discover who they are not. The major dynamics that are played out are only interesting because they don’t cause a major rupture in the dynamics of the group. This is not an a àb à c journey, but one that spirals back on itself and then through another dimension. The final moment is thus away from the concrete.

Cinema itself has often followed rules, but López only sets up rules to break them. And in doing so, she uses for cinema as a philosophical tool. For as many years, the cinema has acted as a guide toward so many ideologies, philosophies, and realities. But Leones is a break from structure. López wrote that she stole her title from an idea of Borges, who said that animals never understood the concept of time, and thus she decided to name her film after an animal. So why the lion? It is fierce and knows no boundaries. It is willing to do anything. López strikes me as an animalistic filmmaker: she intuits instead of conceptualizes, working without fear. And if anything, Leones is a fearless work.

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.