“Shanghai Triad” - Zhang Yimou (1995)

Zhang Yimou, who has demonstrated his visual mastery across a wide range of film genres, extended his portfolio into the conventions of film noir with his dark period piece Shanghai Triad. Zhang’s previous effort, To Live, was an outstanding expression of existentialist struggle and had garnered enormous prize abroad, but its reception had gotten him into hot water with the Chinese government.  That film’s depiction of the misery imposed on ordinary people by autocratic and disruptive Chinese government “campaigns” had led the authorities to ban it from being shown in China and also temporarily ban Zhang from filmmaking.  So with Shanghai Triad, Zhang moved into safer waters by making a supposedly conventional gangster film set in 1930, prior to the Communist takeover.

This might lead one to expect him to produce an ordinary escapist thriller, but with Zhang’s subtlety of expression on display in any film he makes, there will be always temptations to consider larger issues.  So Shanghai Triad has its share of interesting themes lying behind the events depicted.

The story follows the experiences over eight days of a fourteen-year-old boy from the countryside who has been sent to the big city to work for the gangster operations run by some of his clan members.  In China, especially in the warlord-torn period of the early 20th century when institutional securities were largely absent, trusted relations were essential; and clan membership was the fundamental trusted connection.  The paranoid atmosphere of mistrust in those days was of course even more heightened in the underworld run by the big gangs, or “triads”, so clan loyalty was heavily counted on.  Merely by being a distant member of Boss Tang’s Shanghai gang, the teenage boy Shuisheng had a free ticket to potential material security as a gang member.  But of course at this early stage he was going to be just a humble servant for his masters.

The focalization of the film is entirely through Shuisheng’s perspective, so the viewer sees and learns everything about what is going on pretty much as Shuisheng does.  But the narrative structure goes through three phases that are respectively dominated by attention to each of three main characters:
  • the boy Shuisheng
  • Xiao Jinbao, who is Boss Tang’s mistress and is known as “Bijou
  • Boss Tang
1.  Shuisheng’s induction
The first phase covers the first two days of the week-long events of Shanghai Triad.  Tang Shuisheng has arrived by boat in Shanghai and is met by his uncle Tang Liu, who is minor operative in Boss Tang’s gang.  This gang is said to be the dominant triad gang in Shanghai and therefore, by means of its various illegal operations, is turning over and accumulating untold wealth.  In these first two days, which cover about forty minutes of screen time, Liu explains to the boy (and hence to the viewer) the layout and protocols of the gang.  Very early on Shuisheng also happens to witness a gangland killing of some rival gang members, who are ambushed and then killed in cold-blood by a dapper young Tang gang operative whom we will later learn is named Song and is Boss Tang’s “number two” man.  This short violent scene gives the viewer and Shuisheng a taste of the kind of world that the boy is entering.
Shuisheng is clearly ignorant of city ways, and he remains silent and wide-eyed as Liu shows him the ropes around the gang’s quarters.  Shuisheng’s assignment is to serve as the personal servant of the boss’s beautiful mistress, Bijou (played by Gong Li), who is a stage singer and dancer at the fanciest nightclub in Shanghai. 

We also learn that there is a rival gang run by a certain “Fat Yu” and that it was members of that gang that Song had gunned down on the first day.  Boss Tang is unhappy that the status quo has been disturbed by Song’s impetuous murders, and he reprimands his underlings, not out of ethical or moral concerns but because the “balance of power” may have been disrupted.  It is always important, he insists, to maintain “face” (i.e. honor, a Chinese obsession).  Boss Tang says he needs to make a cordial visit to Fat Yu and play mahjong with him so that Fat Yu can maintain face, and thus a gangland war can be avoided.  We also learn at the close of the second day of the story that Bijou is two-timing Boss Tang by having a secret love affair with number two man Song. 
Bijou sings two stage numbers during this section of the film.  The first one, “Pretending”, is a sassy, in-your-face song about temptation and is Boss Tang’s personal favorite. The second song, “Moonlight”, tells of secret longing for moonlit trysts and is the favorite of Song.  The revelation that Boss Tang hates the song “Moonlight” gives the viewer a hint that Boss Tang may not be entirely oblivious of Bijou’s straying and that impending conflict is on the menu.
2.  Bijou’s longings
The second section begins with Bijou in a tuxedo singing a sultry nightclub song.  The scene evokes images of a similarly garbed Marlene Dietrich singing on stage in Josef Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930), and it may remind viewers that the extended Zhang Yimou - Gong Li onscreen and offscreen partnership has been likened to the Sternberg-Dietrich association.

The key event in this section, though, is that while Boss Tang was visiting Fat Yu’s premises to make amends, he and his men were ambushed.  Many of Tang’s men, including Uncle Liu, were killed by Fat Yu’s men.  Boss Tang makes the tactical decision to retreat to safety with a few key operatives, including Bijou and Shuisheng but not Song, to a secret island refuge outside Shanghai.

While on the island, the focus shifts fo Bijou.  She befriends a friendly and straightforward peasant woman on the island, Cuihua, whose 9-year-old daughter, Ajiao befriends Shuisheng.  We eventually learn that although Bijou has continually derided Shuisheng as a country bumpkin, she, herself, was a peasant coming from the countryside, too.  The whole tone of this section is around Bijou’s sense of lost innocence and  her realization that life in the glitzy city has corrupted her and not brought true happiness.  She longs for the simple, innocent, and authentic existence of Cuihua.   

3.  Boss Tang’s settlements

Boss Tang announces that his deputy Song is going to pay a visit the group on the secret island.  While out in the high weeds attending to his bodily functions, Shuisheng overhears a nearby but unfamiliar voice saying, “doesn’t Song mind about killing Bijou?”.  These words  must come from Song’s newly arrived contingent, and they must be bent on mayhem.  The idea that Song wants to kill Bijou seems bizarre to us at that point, but it is not long before the entire film is engulfed in treachery and betrayal.  Boss Tang has set up Song and killed the eighteen men who had accompanied Song to the island.  Tang takes Song prisoner and accuses him of secretly working for Fat Yu and also seducing his woman (the ultimate face-destroying humiliation).  In revenge for these betrayals, Tang has Song buried alive along with eighteen other men who had been killed earlier.  Tang then smilingly tells Bijou that he will kill her, too. Furthermore he has already had the innocent Cuihua killed (as well as, earlier, Cuihua's lover) and will make her daughter Ajiao his future concubine.  Everything, Tang explains, will be done discretely so that he can preserve his public face and maintain his vital image of mastery. 

The final shots show Boss Tang and his close associates on a boat headed back to Shanghai.  Shuisheng is shown hanging upside down from a mast.  Although he hadn’t done anything wrong, Tang explains that this is part of Shuisheng’s essential training of pain and discipline for future life in the gang.
There are some general themes of interest in Shanghai Triad, beyond those of betrayal and revenge. Zhang Yimou’s earlier films had often shown protagonists struggling to exist within a stifling social environment – either a social milieu  imposed on people by outmoded customs or by the ill-advised autocratic polices of Communist officials. As a consequence, many commentators viewed Zhang as a social critic, a label that he has resisted.  But I think Zhang’s general perspective is better seen as representing a more personal, existentialist perspective of the individual trying to make his or her way in a difficult world – and thus not from a top-down perspective that overtly directs criticism on social structures.  Here in Shanghai Triad, too, we see a similar situation – a stifling environment.  Only this time that oppressive environment is the ruthless gangland underworld, where empathy is only seen as a sign of weakness.  But if Zhang’s view is individual, rather than social or structural, where is the individual narrative focus in Shanghai Triad and what is the outline of its associated “journey”?

In the first section of the film, the narrative focalization is on Shuisheng, but we never get feeling for his reactions.  He is just an innocent witness who has no impact on his surroundings.  We never have a feeling for his goals, and whatever impact his environment and associations have on him is obscure.  After that first section of the film, the Shuisheng narrative thread fades to the background.  Thereafter the narrative focus shifts over to Bijou and her relations with Tang, Song, and Cuihua.  But Bijou is crushed in the end, and her life of pretense is exposed as the powerless fantasy that everyone suspected.  So the final narrative thread shifts to Tang.

Boss Tang is initially shown in the film as something of an avuncular, almost congenial, supervisor of his gang.  In his mild-mannered way, he indulges Bijou and admonishes Song for his disruptive actions.  He seeks peace with Fat Yu, only to be double-crossed by the ambush  that leaves him seriously injured.  We are also aware that he is being two-timed by Bijou and Song.  So Tang seems vulnerable early on, and we may be moved to have some sympathies for him.  By the end of the film, though, we see Tang as a cruel, almost satanic, manipulator of all those around him and completely devoid of any human compassion. We have been double-crossed, too, into sympathizing with him early on.  At the end we see the final, “true” perspective that Zhang wishes to leave with us.

Tang lives rigidly by his artificially imposed set of rules.  Anyone who disobeys those rules is heartlessly eliminated. The decadent Shanghai world shown in the film is one of phoney, ostentatious  consumerism that comes from the outside and is clearly not the real, authentic China that is supposedly represented by Cuihua and her daughter Ajiao.  Bijou, herself, is the embodiment of how authentic Chinese beauty has been corrupted by fantasy images of glamour and false romance. Driving this fantasy machine of casinos, flashy glamour, and easy virtue is the criminal underworld that is steeped in cruelty and fear.

But beyond this stark contrast between sin and innocence on an individual scale, there is also a larger cultural perspective – that of the general cultural decadence of Chinese life in the 1930s and the apprehension that the corruption and disorder of those days may be returning to modern China.  In those days China was inefficiently governed by the Guomindang (Kuomintang or KMT, the Chinese Nationalists), which were locked in a power struggle with the Communists.  Since the Communist takeover, the KMT have always been demonized as utterly corrupt and lacking in basic human values, turning over the country’s wealth to profiteers and gangsters.  In Shanghai Triad, Boss Tang can be seen operating at the core of this semi-organized and ruthless power system that has a monopoly on coercive power and snuffs out all sense of decency and compassion.  I doubt that it is coincidence that Tang’s visage bears more than a passing similarity to that of former Guomindang leader, Jiang Jie-Shi (Chiang Kai-Shek – see the accompanying figure).  Jiang Jie-Shi, of course, was responsible for the notorious 1927 Shanghai Massacre of Communist party members that led to the irrevocable split between the Communists and the KMT.

So despite Zhang’s avowed movement to a more traditional gangster film genre, he has again employed his individual narrative perspective to present something that can be interpreted to be a social critique.  But this time his critique is more in line with the official view of the Chinese authorities.  This may represent something of a thematic turn for Zhang, but not nearly as marked as the one displayed later in Hero (2002), which expressed support for the idea that the demands for social stability and security justify totalitarian statism (see my review of Hero for further discussion of this topic).

Cinematically Zhang brings this dark underworld to light with his characteristic sense of atmospheric color and composition.  It is true that there are perhaps too many lingering tight closeups of Shuisheng, whose character remains opaque throughout and doesn’t come into any further light through such constant attention.  But in general the point-of-view visual style employed in the film works pretty well, and is well supported by many fluid tracking shots that give one a feeling of movement through an unfamiliar space that is only gradually becoming revealed via that movement. 

The performance of Gong Li, as Bijou, deserves special mention.  As I remarked above, there was a special relationship between Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, and it has been compared to that of von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich.  Zhang and Sternberg were both deemed to be cinematic Svengalis, with exclusive powers of calling forth the bewitching capabilities of their proteges.  Each actress was said to be the embodiment of her director’s romantic fantasies.  I am not sure about that, but there is something unique about Gong Li, and I have remarked about her more extensively in my review of Raise the Red Lantern (1991).  There is something about her that suggest action, not just passive beauty.  Like Dietrich, she has a beautiful figure, but this is never exploited or presented suggestively but is simply part of the overall embodiment of active beauty.  Her face conveys a smoldering passion that connote some mysterious longings – desires that are unspoken and perhaps can never be articulated. These images lie at the heart of Zhang Yimou’s expressiveness, and I think Zhang has not found an artistic replacement for that magical ingredient. 

There is another connection between Zhang and von Sternberg here – that between Zhang’s.  Shanghai Triad and von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941).  Both films share a common setting, the degenerate world of Shanghai in the 1930s.  And both films are overlaid with pessimism about humankind’s abilities to overcome the depravity of hatred and vengeance.  But these two film are nevertheless expressions of directors who implicitly express longings for something different – something deeper and more fulfilling about human existence.  They are expressing their romantic disappointment that the beautiful wonders of life are so infrequently allowed to come to fulfillment.  The only glimmers we have of it here in Shanghai Triad are in the enigmatic glances of Gong Li’s face as she contemplates Cuihua – something hopelessly removed from the life in store for the oppressed Shuisheng, who is, like most of Zhang’s characters, simply trying to endure.
★★★

“Moneyball” - Bennett Miller (2011)


Moneyball (2011) is a popular, historically-grounded American sports film with a deceptively clever subtext that provides its overall theme. To appreciate that subtext, you have to know quite a bit about the American game of baseball, a realization that is not obvious to all viewers and reviewers.  For example, critic Roger Ebert commented that the film would even appeal to non-sport fans:
Moneyball is not a traditional sports movie, and indeed should be just as gripping for non-sports fans.”
I don’t think so.  I think you have to have some understanding of the subtleties of baseball to get what’s going on.  So I hope American baseball fans will indulge my making a few general comments about the game and about the associated underlying thematic issues before discussing the specifics of the story. 

1. The Game of Baseball
The ultimate goal of baseball is for a team, comprising nine players, to score the most “runs”. At any given point in a game, one team is on offense (“batting”) and attempting to score runs, while the defending team is in the field, trying to prevent runs from being scored.  Successive individuals on the batting team will attempt to bat a ball, thrown by the opposing team’s “pitcher”, into the playing field and out of the reach of the defending team’s “fielders”.  By doing so the batting team hopes to move players successively around the three “bases” in the field in order to get back to the original batting position (“home plate”) – at which point the team has scored a run (see the figure of the playing field).  An offensive player running between bases is in danger of being “tagged out” by the defensive team; but each base is a sanctuary from being tagged out, and a player can remain safely there while the next offensive player takes a turn to bat.

A team’s turn at batting is ended when they have made three “outs” – an out is registered when the batter is unable to hit three properly thrown pitches, or when a batted ball is caught by a fielder before it touched the ground, or when a runner is tagged out. After completing a turn at batting, the team will take the field on defense, and the opposing team will have a turn at bat. When two teams have each completed a turn batting, it is called an “inning”, and a full game consists of nine innings.

From this brief description it is clear that each team has a total of 27 outs (3 outs for each of 9 innings) available for them to use up, during the course of which they will try to score as many runs as possible.  That part of the game is simple enough.  But there are many intricacies to the rules of the game, and it can take some time for even an American to become familiar with all of them.

One of the distinctive aspects of baseball and part of its appeal is that it is a game of skill, as opposed to brute force.  Talent for the game is not so much based on strength, speed, or leaping ability, but on physical coordination.  Even a person with ordinary physical attributes can have the dream of becoming a great baseball player if he is physically coordinated. In addition, there are a number of different baseball skills, and a reasonably good team can be composed of players who are not all-around athletes, but instead have only a specialized skill that fills a gap in the team’s skill set.  I’ll return to this issue of skill shortly.

Another distinctive feature of baseball is that it does not comprise continuous play but is a a stop-and-go game of many individual “plays”.  During an entire game the pitchers on each team may throw 150 or more pitches, each of which can result in some complicated action that is a play.  All of these observed plays can be documented by spectators and in various ways measured as somewhat replicable events. This has led to an enormous amount of “statistics” – aggregated performance data about all teams and players – that have been collected about the game – much more, as far as I can determine, that any other sport or game.  To get an idea of this enormous accumulation of statistics, you might like to examine Baseball-Reference.com or the Baseball Almanac.  So there is a lot of knowledge that has been collected about baseball, and this baseball knowledge is different from baseball skill.  It is the contrast between knowledge and skill and how the two can be used that underlies the meaning of Moneyball and represents a theme far more general than just the game of baseball.

2. Knowledge and Skill
It has always been a pillar of Western thinking that for a piece of knowledge to be “true”, it must be verifiable, and therefore it must be expressible in a form that can be communicated to others.  This means that what we believe to be knowledge must be expressible in some logical form and communicable to others in some sort of linguistic format.  Knowledge has to be representable as a mental model that we can tell others about.  But skill is different and only depends on performance.  To be skillful is to interact successfully in a given environment, and a mental model is not part of the definition.  So a mathematical model in physics is a representable mental model and hence knowledge, while the capability of riding a bicycle is a skill.  This is sometimes summarized as the contrast between “know-how” (skill) and “know-what” (knowledge).

There are some people, such as Michael Polanyi [1] and many cognitive scientists, who conflate the two and refer to skill as a special type of knowledge, called “tacit knowledge”. These people mostly believe that the operational aspects of a skill are encoded in the brain in some logical format, but that it is just a little too complex to be articulated, and so lies “just below the radar” of consciousness.  But I believe that skills and knowledge are fundamentally different and not just two degrees of the same sort of mental activity.  So in my view, it is better to keep knowledge and skill as separate and distinct categories.  In fact the fundamental difference between knowledge and skill has been emphasized from a different quarter – phenomenologist philosophers.  For example, Martin Heidegger distinguished between two basic modes of encountering things in the world – “ready-to-hand” and “present-at-hand” [2].  By his account, when we see a tool, such as a hammer, we usually see it as ready-to-hand: we see it as something we can use to accomplish a task.  In this way, it becomes part of and enhances our skill at doing something.  But when we look at the same tool as a theoretical object, an item of knowledge that be analyzed in terms of its properties, we are viewing it as present-at-hand.  Similarly, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, when he spoke of the “intentional arc”, said that skills involve a tight interaction between the performer and the environment, such that skills are not stored as mental representations, but as operational dispositions [3].  According to his thinking, the body attempts to maintain a “maximal grip” on a situation by continually configuring itself for an optimal interaction.  So we learn how to ride a bicycle not from a book, but by making continual interactive embodied-mind adjustments in the world.

Thus skills and knowledge are fundamentally different, and skills are the more critical aspect of intelligence. But knowledge is still very valuable. Knowledge can be used as a tool to support one’s skill, just as the craftsperson employs the right tool to enhance his or her craftsmanship. In fact in our modern IT-besotted Knowledge Economy”, many organizations tend to place so much emphasis on knowledge that they neglect the importance of interactively grounded skills.  But  there is a very prominent organizational domain (and one germane to this discussion) where knowledge is not overvalued – and that domain is baseball.

3. Moneyball
As I mentioned, baseball is the quintessential game of skill, and the focus on skill dominates all aspects of the game, including management.  As a consequence of this focus on skills, knowledge tends to be neglected.  This brings us back to the film Moneyball.

In the US major professional baseball leagues, as with many professional sports around the world, the individual teams compete for the best players in an open job market.  Usually the wealthiest teams wind up with the best players.  In 2002 the Oakland Athletics baseball team found itself losing out to wealthier teams when it came to bidding for top players in the job market.  Top Athletics players Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen all chose to sign as free agents with other baseball teams.  With his top players gone, the Athletics’s general manager, Billy Beane (played in the film by Brad Pitt) needed to come up with a new strategy.  The best teams in the league, such as the New York Yankees, had three times as much money to bid and spend on players as the Oakland Athletics had.  How could the Athletics compete with the best teams under those circumstances?  Moneyball tells the story of how Beane came up with such a new stratregy and what transpired as a result.

Since the focus on skill in baseball has been so long-standing and pervasive, even the baseball talent scouts have relied on their intuitive skills (rather than on knowledge) to judge player value when looking for new prospects. A scout would watch the play of a prospective player and assess his worth based on his own “feel” for the game, which was taken to be his accumulated wisdom based on experience.  This was understood to be the talent scout’s essential skill.  The strategy that Beane decided to employ was to turn his focus to knowledge – to do some knowledge mining.  This he did by employing a numerical analyst, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who collected and evaluated statistics about all the available players.  Brand was not a skilled baseball scout and had evidently not even played much baseball.  He was just a baseball fan – but a knowledgeable baseball fan.

Among the many baseball fans in the US, there was a special group devoted to sabermetrics, a term derived from the acronym SABR, for “Society  for American Baseball Research”.  Pioneered by amateur statistician Bill James in the late 1970s, sabermetrics sought to analyze aggregated baseball statistics (of which, as mentioned, there is a huge amount) in order to make performance predictions.  Along the way, James and the sabermetricians made a number of interesting discoveries that ran counter to conventional baseball wisdom.  For example, they discovered that the 27 “outs” that a baseball team had available to them in a game were a precious commodity, and it was never advisable to sacrifice even one of them.  Hence their statistical analyses demonstrated that a well-known baseball play, the “sacrifice bunt”, was counterproductive and should never be used.  Similarly, they observed that attempts to steal a base were usually unproductive, unless a successful outcome was almost certain.  And they also noted that getting on base was crucial, so a batter should  “take” (avoid swinging his bat to try to hit) many pitches in an effort to be awarded a “base on balls”.  Thus a group of baseball analysts, by simply watching games and employing mathematics, were able to come up with information that challenged the baseball canon.  Peter Brand was one of these sabermetricians.

Much of the story of Moneyball traces the interaction between Billy Beane and Peter Brand.  Brand was a knowledge guy. Beane was a skill-guy. In fact Beane had been a major league baseball player, himself, though his playing career had not lived up to expectations. But Beane was also smart – smart enough to have once been awarded a scholarship to Stanford (which he had declined in favor of signing a professional baseball contract instead) and smart enough to see the potential of Brand’s sabermetric approach [4].

Prior to the start of the 2002 baseball season, general manager Beane installed Brand as part of his management team.  The other members of his management team were not impressed with the unprepossessing and clearly unathletic Brand.  He was an awkward goose in the company of a bunch of sleek, self-satisfied ducks.  But Beane persisted and began acquiring low-cost players based on Brand’s recommendations.  Brand pointed out to Beane that some available players were, on the basis of his statistical analyses, much more valuable than they appeared.  These players did not look like model athletes, but they could be effective, and they could be acquired on the cheap. 

Once the regular baseball season game, Beane began insisting that the team employ Brand’s sabermettrician-inspired strategies, such as avoiding base-stealing and sacrifice bunts.  This proactive involvement with the players was an unusual practice for a baseball general manager, who manages the team’s personnel and leaves the on-field tactics to the field manager (who is essentially the head coach, but in baseball parlance is just referred to as the “manager”).  But Beane was a former player and only about forty years old at this time, so he still retained his own intimate feel for the game, much to the consternation of the manager.  In fact Moneyball shows that the manager, Art Howe (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), was a traditionalist who dismissed the new tactics and was acidly resentful of his boss’s interference into his own domain.  
 
Nevertheless, the Athletics, with its somewhat rag-tag collection of players, began the 162-game season reasonably well, winning 16 of its first 27 games.  Then they began to falter, losing 15 of their next 19 games.  All the nay-sayers in the team’s clubhouse and in the media came out now and expressed scorn for Beane’s new approach.  It was too gimmicky, they said, and it just wouldn’t work.  But Beane and Brand stuck to their guns – Brand’s recommendations were not based on hunches but on solid statistical support from past performances.  Gradually the team began to win.  And the Athletics’s baseball fans rallied to the team’s support and began flocking to the stadium to watch the games.

Later on in the season, in fact, the team went on an extraordinary winning streak, winning 20 games in a row.  This set a new league record (records date back over one hundred years). The film dwells a bit on the last game in that winning streak, which was truly phenomenal.  The Atheltics started that game against the Kansas City Royals by building a huge 11-0 lead in the early innings.  Then the Royals staged a comeback.  In the 8th inning the Royals scored five runs to cut the lead to 11-10, and in the  9th inning, the Royals finally tied the score at 11-11.  But the reeling Athletics still had their own 9th inning turn at bat.  The manager inserted one of Beane’s acquired “ugly ducklings”, Scott Hatteberg, as a substitute to bat, and Hatteberg promptly hit a dramatic home run to win the record-setting game in front of the home crowd.  This was not Hollywood, but how it actually happened, and a hack film scenarist couldn’t have come up with a more melodramatic sequence of events.

So Beane and Brand were finally vindicated.  The Athletics finished in first place with 103 season victories (an unusually high total even for a first-place team).  The end-of-season playoffs were an anticlimax, though, and the Athletics were eliminated without winning the championship.  Nevertheless, Beane was recognized as an ingenious genera manager for guiding an underfunded team to the best record.

Of course, there are other narrative threads to Moneyball than the one of skill and intuition versus objective knowledge.  One of them concerns the psychological journey of Billy Beane.  He is shown to be a man who feels utter agony when he loses.  He is still tortured by his failed baseball career as a player and often mentally relives past episodes of failure.  He suffers so much at the thought of his Athletics losing that he often avoids watching games and buries himself in personal exercises in his gym.  He is also divorced, and his teenage daughter is also “lost” to him – she’s now in the custody of his ex-wife, who has remarried.  The film shows Beane struggling hard during his parental visits to maintain contact with the young girl. 

So in the face of all this anguish about losing, Beane’s managerial vindication is a personal triumph.  At the end of the 2002 baseball season, he if offered a huge contract to be the general manager of  a rival, wealthier team, the Boston Red Sox.  There he could apply his knowledge-enhanced managerial skills and have more financial resources with which to do it.  But he had long ago turned down a Stanford scholarship for money, and he decides not to repeat that kind of decision.  There are other things more important to him than money this time around.

One of the appealing things about Moneyball is the ingenious casting.  I suppose credit for this should extend beyond just the casting director, Francine Maisler, but whoever is responsible deserves high praise.  Jonah Hill is fabulous and exceptionally convincing as the nerdy Peter Brand, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is also dramatically effective as the cynical field manager, Art Howe (although the real Art Howe reportedly felt he was misrepresented in the film).  In addition, the players, the scouts, the executives all look the part.  Brad Pitt is effective in his own way, too.  His sad eyes project a wincing, pensive look about him that adds depth to his roles.  This winds up occupying a lot of screen time, but he often manages to suggest a reflective person (when he is not indulging in wasteful fist-slamming temper tantrums).

Overall, you have to credit director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin for making Moneyball something much more substantial than just another sports thriller.  In fact Sorkin had similar success elevating The Social Network (2010) well above what might have been expected of a film oriented around Facebook.  So I will be keen to look out for the next Sorkin outing.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. Doubleday.
  2. Heidegger, M. (1927/2008). Being and Time. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (trans.). Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
  3. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2002). Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge. 
  4. In actuality, Beane had been interested in sabermetrics before 2002, but probably for narrative economy, the film compresses this development into the single year.

Martin Scorsese

Films of Martin Scorsese:

“Hugo” - Martin Scorsese (2011)

Martin Scorsese’s more than forty-year career as a film director has encompassed a wide range of subject matter and film genres, but he has always had a signature style of pulling out all the stops in terms of cinematic mise-en-scène.  So there had to be some sense of anticipation when he chose to make a film concerning the father of cinematic flamboyance, the pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès – and in 3-D, to boot. 
 
The resulting film was Hugo (2011), which is based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated adventure novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  The story set in Paris in 1931 concerns Hugo Cabret, a 12-year-old boy who lives alone in a cramped machine room in the Montparnasse railway station, where he winds the station’s big mechanical clocks.  Early on in the story, the viewer is informed via flashbacks that Hugo had been living happily with his widowed clockmaker father, but the father had recently died in a fire at the museum where he worked.  Hugo was then taken in by his uncle, a heavy drinker who orders the boy to help him look after the Gare Montparnasse clocks.  Not long afterwards the uncle drowns in the Seine, and the now-alone Hugo is left to his own devices to look after himself and avoid getting sent to an orphanage.

The boy keeps maintaining the station clocks and routinely steals food from the vendors in the station, always trying to avoid getting caught by the beady-eyed station guard (played by Sacha Baron Cohen), whose life’s passion, it seems, is to arrest street urchins and have them sent to the orphanage.  Hugo seems to have inherited a mechanical aptitude from his beloved father, and the magic of mechanical operation seems to be a major theme of the film.  Hugo’s father had been working to restore to working order a mechanical man that he had recovered from a museum.  This mechanical man, a true automaton, had been so ingeniously designed that it could sit at a table and write a message.  But when found in the museum, it needed some repairs, and Hugo’s father had not completed the task before his death in the fire.  Now in his spare time Hugo continues his father’s task of trying to fix the automaton, using his father’s notebook to help guide the work.  To obtain needed parts, such as springs and gears, the boy often steals mechanical toys from a train station toy store kiosk that is run by a grumpy old man. 

On one such occasion, the grumpy shopkeeper snatches Hugo’s vital automaton notebook and compels the boy to work in his toy shop for some time in order to regain it.  In this process Hugo meets the shopkeeper’s adopted goddaughter, Isabelle, who is about Hugo’s age and becomes Hugo’s only friend.  Eventually, with the help of Isabelle, Hugo manages to fix the automaton, which immediately makes a drawing that leads Hugo and Isabelle to an astounding discovery.  Isabelle’s godfather is in fact the famous early filmmaker George Méliès, whose cinema career had subsequently faded and left him bankrupt, to the point where he was reduced to operating a dingy toy shop.  It turns out that prior to his filmmaking days, Méliès had been a stage magician and a craftsman fabricator of robots.  It was he who had originally constructed  the automaton now in Hugo’s possession.

Hugo and Isabelle both want to learn more about Méliès (Isabelle had not known about her godfather’s past).  Through the assistance of a friendly bookseller (played by Christopher Lee), they meet a film historian, Rene Tabard, who is devoted to Méliès’s legacy and who possesses what is thought to be the only remaining copy of Méliès’s legendary film, Voyage to the Moon.  Together they meet Méliès at his apartment and cheer the legendary filmmaker by celebrating his glorious past.  Hugo rushes back to the train station to retrieve Méliès’s automaton and show it to Méliès, but while returning he is snatched by the nasty station guard with the intent of shipping his prisoner off to the orphanage.  But Méliès shows up at the station in the nick of time and rescues the boy.  The film concludes on a triumphant note, with Tabard organizing a public tribute recognizing and celebrating Méliès’s accomplishments.
        
Hugo is a curious film, because, as with many of Scorsese’s works, the film’s narrative coherence and resolution are somewhat vague.  Scorsese has a knack for creating very involving and dramatic cinematic milieus, but then allowing the narrative progression to get lost somewhere along the way.  So we often wonder, what is this film really about?  In this film it seems to be about the journey of young Hugo, but the entire second half of the film is essentially a celebration of the works of George Méliès, and our focus on Hugo’s fate is gradually lost.  To be sure, this movement is a reflection of Scorsese’s abiding interest in film history and historical film preservation, but this film is supposed to be about Hugo’s quest.  Although at the end Hugo has found a home and friends, what were his essential attributes or accomplishments that led to this satisfactory outcome?  What was the overall theme of the film?

Certainly there is an interest in fantasy and magic.  Méliès was originally a stage magician, and his interest in creating illusions led him to see that the new medium of filmmaking offered a splendid vehicle for creating more elaborate fantasies and illusions.  He was the originator of many film special effects – in fact Méliès virtually created that subfield of cinematography.  Scorsese seems not only to want to memorialize Méliès but also to celebrate the very idea of cinematic fantasy.  This is supported by the 3-D extravagance and the cartoon-like portrayals of the stock characters in the train station, such as the station guard. 

Sometimes Scorsese’s overtly rhetorical use of special effects in Hugo takes center stage – at the expense of the narrative storytelling.  There are numerous camera shots taken from bizarre camera angles that have no narrative motivation, other than perhaps to create a sense of strangeness.  For example, when Isabelle discovers and pulls out a box of papers from a wardrobe in Méliès’s room, the camera perspective is from inside the small upper compartment of the wardrobe.  This is one of many shots for which there is not intuitive feeling for the point of view.  There are also a number of high overhead camera shots that are not establishing shots and seem to be present simply to create a startling perspective.  These shots appear to be present in the film primarily to exploit 3-D technology, which can admittedly accentuate the feeling of contextual immersion, but which should not be used just for its own sake.  There are two visually spectacular sequences in this vein that do stand out, however.  One is the recreation of the famous Gare Montparnasse train derailment of 1895, which is shown as part of a nightmare that Hugo experiences one night.  The other memorable scene is the film’s closing tracking shot, almost two minutes in length, which starts out from outside an apartment window and tracks inside to an ongoing party and circles around the principal characters, all of whom are shown to have reached some level of final fulfilment.  In the history of long cinematic tracking shots, this one is worth keeping in the vault.

But there is something more here than just the evocation of fantasy.  Scorsese is also emphasizing the magic of mechanical operation.  Throughout the film Hugo is awash in clockworks that are a tangle of interlocked gears and levers.  The automaton that can write a message is operated purely by wound-up springs that operate a complex web of mechanical components.  Given our current obsession with computer and electronic controls and media, it is easy to forget, and useful to be reminded, just how amazingly complex and wonderful purely mechanical operations can be. After all, Charles Babbage’s original computer in the early 19th century was a mechanically operated device.  And in the historical setting of this film, it was the ingenious construction of the movie camera and projector that amazed and astonished people even more, because it could evoke an entirely new world of the imagination.

But however amazing the mechanically produced operations may be that drive these fantasy-producing machines, it is important to keep in mind that the truly amazing creation takes place in the mind of watcher.  It is the viewer who constructs in his or her own mind the alternative reality that is based on the images that are projected on the cinema screen.  That is where the real magic does (or does not) take place.  Méliès, the illusionist, exploited that human facility, but we are not given that focus in Hugo.  Instead, the focus in Hugo is purely on mechanical operations.  And this mechanical operation is presented as basically magical, even though we know that both Hugo and Méliès understand how all these things work – how the purely cause-and-effect operations and interactions of mechanical components lead to inevitable outcomes that can be well understood and are not truly “magical”.

So the film is one of two halves.  In the first half of the film, the story focuses on the mostly ludicrous, slapstick encounters of Hugo trying to escape the clutches of the station guard.  These scenes are meant to evoke the exaggerated style of early silent-screen histrionics.  The second half of Hugo centers on Méliès and his inventive illusionist creations for the screen.  A thematic linkage between the two halves seems to be the notion that mechanical inventiveness lay behind all these illusions and perhaps that mechanical ingenuity has a close connection with artistic creativity.  At least the two were apparently connected in the person of Méliès.  But I believe that our capacity to imagine and fantasize are quite different from the mechanical.  We use the mechanically-contrived devices as tools to help elevate human consciousness, which is of an entirely different nature from the mechanical.
★★★