Sunday, October 09, 2011

A. O. Scott on "Insider Baseball"

Today's New York Times, featured a film essay by A. O. Scott entitled "Inside Knowledge for All You Outsiders." The piece deals with a recent spat of films that trade on what A. O. Scott calls, borrowing a phrase from Joan Didion, "insider baseball."  Given my interest in media literacy and my last post on The Public Burning, I thought I would link the article here and write a little bit about it.

According to Scott, films like Moneyball, The Ideas of March, Contagion, and television shows like The Wire succeed because they reveal to readers the trade secrets of managing a baseball team, running a political campaign, controlling the outbreak of a plague, or policing Baltimore's inner city. Whereas in real life the technical knowledge one needs to be a baseball manager, political operative, public health specialist, or even a cop remain obscure, these films make these things visible. Scott argues that these films reassure audiences. A the same time that they demonstrate the mechanics of these professions, they also reveal that the people who run our sports, political, medical, and legal establishments are just like you and me. Scott writes:

And this is the ultimate reassurance offered by the insider narrative. Unlike the paranoid conspiracy thrillers that are their fraternal twins, inside-baseball movies do not turn on hidden agendas and concealed motives. On the contrary, once you pierce the veil of illusion you find regular people doing their jobs: the schlubby campaign managers played by Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Ides of March”; Laurence Fishburne’s Centers for Disease Control bureaucrat in “Contagion”; the brokers, bankers and analysts who scurry through “Margin Call” trying to stem the tide of catastrophe. Those guys are running the world, but they’re also just doing their jobs, which consist of trying to wrest some temporary order out of the chaos of life. It helps to be good at math.

Scott is dead on  when he writes that the "insider baseball" film is the fraternal twin on the conspiracy thriller. So much of modern political and social life runs along an axis that moves from the paranoid conspiracy to the reassuring personality. After all, given that specialized knowledge is needed to participate in most modern institutions of power, it seems natural that one would imagine that these same institutions are nothing if not conspiratorial. In the absence of understanding and knowledge, we imagine the worst. Conversely, given the lack of hard information, it also seems natural that one would turn a reassuring personality who one can instinctively trust to do the right thing.

In Scott's account, the "insider baseball" film fall away from technical explanations and moves to focusing on personalities. I take it for Scott this is less a problem and more an inevitably. These films are supposed to reassure audiences and it's hard to imagine popular narratives that do not seem centrally focused on real life characters. But there is the potential for a problem here.

In my last post, I argued that Robert Coover's Public Burning revealed Nixon  to be "a man torn by conflicting sentiments, but ultimately . . . a man [willing to] do anything to seize power." While this is a strength of the novel, I wonder if this is not also it's weakness, a weakness also potentially shared by the films that Scott describes. When we get distracted by personality, we tend to forget about policy and the technical details which effect us far more than whether Moneyball's Billy Beane is boastful or Richard Nixon is deceitful. At the same time, I find it difficult to say that particular human quirks are unimportant. People defy logical explanation all the time. The trick when focusing on personality, and I think Garry Wills does this beautifully in Nixon Agonistes, is that it must stand in for the whole of a system of thinking. A personality or character, as Georg Lukacs argues in The Historical Novel, is the product of historical circumstances. When authors and filmmakers look at personality, we should not accept the "ho-hum" response that such-and-such is just like you and me, but we should ask how that personality reveals some fundamental value about the time that the film depicts.

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