FILMS

Baseball’s original sin

EIGHT MEN OUT Directed by John Sayles STEALING HOME Directed by Steven Kampmann and Will Aldis

Brian D. Johnson September 5 1988
FILMS

Baseball’s original sin

EIGHT MEN OUT Directed by John Sayles STEALING HOME Directed by Steven Kampmann and Will Aldis

Brian D. Johnson September 5 1988

Baseball’s original sin

FILMS

EIGHT MEN OUT

Directed by John Sayles

STEALING HOME

Directed by Steven Kampmann and Will Aldis

Late in the summer-movie season, some of America’s most eminent directors have brought their boyhood passions to the big screen. With The Last Temptation of Christ, former altar boy Martin Scorsese fulfilled a long-standing ambition to bring Jesus down to earth. With Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Francis Coppola made a romantic fable about the car that he first fell in love with as a young boy. And now, with Eight Men Out, writer-director John Sayles has created a cinematic shrine to the most boyish of all American passions—baseball. It draws on nostalgia for the game, as does another new movie, Stealing Home—a bush-league comingof-age story that never matures. By contrast, Eight Men Out is a darkly evocative allegory of fallen innocence.

For his story, Sayles has focused on a historic episode that amounts to baseball’s moment of original sin. In 1919, eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Sayles dramatizes the scandal with deep empathy for the players’ point of view.

Charlie Sheen is the big name in the

cast, but as centre fielder Hap Felsch, he is just another clumsy conspirator involved in what came to be known as the Black Sox Scandal. Unlike the stars of modern baseball, the White Sox of 1919 were pathetically underpaid by their tightfisted owner, Charles Comiskey (Clifton James). The Sox became easy prey for a network of gamblers bankrolled by mobster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner). All eight players who knew about the fix were barred from ever playing professional baseball again, even though George (Buck) Weaver (John Cusack) played errorless ball and took no bribes, while “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (D. B. Sweeney) led the series in hitting. Almost interchangeable, the two are the focus of an unabashed lament for baseball’s lost nobility.

Sayles portrays a pastime that bears little resemblance to the sport of Astroturf millionaires in the 1980s. The players stab at the ball with small, paw-like mitts. In 1919, big leather gloves—and the lazy, scooping motions that go with them—had yet to evolve. Filming the game from ground level, shooting into the dust of reckless baserunning, Sayles portrays vintage baseball as a loopy game with a ragtime rhythm. The ball-playing scenes contain a complex irony: the actors are trying to play ball like professional athletes who are trying to make a nation of fans believe that they are losing by accident.

The comedy of onfield errors has its humorous moments. And a pair of newspapermen, portrayed by Sayles and veteran journalist Studs Terkel, offer wry commentary from the sidelines. Meanwhile, the team’s youngest fans— unable to accept that their idols are humanare like figures from a Norman Rockwell painting. One boy even confronts Jackson with the immortal line “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

The prevalent mood is sombre. It is filmed in such muted colors that it leaves a lingering illusion of having seen a movie in black and white. Creating an intimate look for the period, Sayles has reproduced the detail of events so faithfully that it is sometimes hard to keep track of the characters. But the arcane quality of the narrative is akin to the baroque lore of the game itself, arguably the most literary of sports. Unlike Bull Durham, in which baseball rituals serve as a metaphor for sex, in Eight Men Out, the religion is strictly orthodox.

Stealing Home, on the other hand, simply exploits the game for cheap sentiment. Mark Harmon (St. Elsewhere) portrays Billy, a washed-up ball player whose old friend Katie (Jodie Foster) has just committed suicide. Katie has entrusted Billy with her ashes, but he does not know what to do with them. While the audience tries to guess whether he will grind them into the dirt of a pitcher’s mound or fling them out to sea, Billy reminisces about Katie. In the extended flashback, two other actors portray the young Billy. And that allows Harmon to be offscreen for two-thirds of the movie.

Benching the top-billed star is an odd strategy. But Harmon’s absence is a welcome relief. His main talent seems to be lighting cigarettes and staring off into space. Jodie Foster acts with terrific spunk in the face of a ludicrous script, but her performance is wasted. Like a very badly played ball game, Stealing Home elicits unintentional laughs. And to make matters worse, a paint-by-numbers score from Canadian pianist David Foster pushes the bittersweet button with dirge-like predictability. Stealing Home is only tangentially related to baseball. It never makes it to first base.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON