Sunday, April 12, 2009

Adam Hartzell: Sugar Ball

Brian here. By now, Adam Harztell is a familiar enough contributor to Hell on Frisco Bay regular readers that he really needs no introduction. But since I haven't bothered figuring out how to turn this into a functioning "team blog" he's getting one anyway. He recently wrote pieces on the Mosque in Morgantown and the cricket angle in Slumdog Millionaire. Now I'm excited to present his latest piece on Sugar, the newest film by the writing/directing team responsible for Have You Seen This Man? and Half Nelson. It's currently playing exclusively at the Embarcadero Cinema and the Camera 12 here on Frisco Bay. Here's Adam, after the image (supplied by Sony Pictures Classics, along with others in this piece):

Like a good wine at dinner, I like to compliment my films with a good book. Just as I read books from the countries where I travel while I’m traveling there, I seek out films and books of related topics to experience those mediums in tandem. I want these texts to talk to each other within me. If some scholar hasn’t already named what I’m talking about, let’s call it "Intentional Intertextuality".

So when I found out there was a pre-screening of Sugar (directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) that I could actually attend, I immediately sought out Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line by Adrian Burgos, Jr. An assistant professor of History at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, I had heard a fascinating interview with Burgos Jr. on Dave Zirin's Edge of Sports Radio show about the baseball academies in Latin America. After hearing the interview, I added his book to my checklist of books to check out one day. And now that Sugar, like Major League Baseball, is upon us, this was the book I needed to provide the proper context for the film.

Although I acquired the book within two days of searching, the search included failed efforts to find it at Bird and Beckett in Glen Park, Green Apple in the Richmond District, and Books Inc. in Laurel Village. The latter was particularly ironic since they had a major display of baseball books to celebrate opening 2009, just not the one I was looking for. My commitment to independent bookstores over Amazon was rewarded when after my wife and I caught a matinee of Tokyo Sonata at the Clay on Fillmore we found Playing America’s Game waiting for me in the shelves of Browser Books.

Sugar the film follows the baseball dreams of an eponymously nicknamed "Sugar", real character name Miguel Santos (debut performance by Algenis Pérez Soto). We meet Sugar at a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. Although the film provides various theories for why Miguel is named "Sugar", it seems equally plausible that his name came from Alan Klein’s book Sugarball, where Klein has this to say about these academies – "The academy is the baseball counterpart of the colonial outposts, the physical embodiment overseas of the parent franchise. It operates...like the subsidiary of any other foreign country: it finds raw materials (talented athletes), refines them (trains the athletes), and ships abroad finished products (baseball players)" (quoted in page 227 of Burgos Jr.’s book). This isn’t a metaphor. That is how some scholars literally see these baseball academies. It is Sugar's carpentry that is the metaphor for the reality of the human bodies as raw material refined into product that the baseball academies enable under the guise of 'opportunity' for the aspiring ballplayers, 'opportunity' being a code word for your employer wanting access to your labor at a reduced rate.

Wow! That sure sounds dehumanizing, doesn't it? The quote and my extension of the argument seem to strip all agency away from the ballplayers at these academies. It’s the pull-quoting that's the problem. There's a lot more context provided in Burgos Jr.'s book, (and I’m sure Klein's) since "it illuminates Latinos as actors, not just people acted upon" (p 268). He focuses in on the agency of the players, how they negotiated the racial and economic impositions of their particular time in history through each man's attempts to play organized baseball. And that's what Sugar seeks to do too: humanize a composite of the experience of ballplayers from the Spanish-speaking Americas. It seeks to humanize by seeking to sympathize. It shows the players as actors through actors. And it’s Sugar's actions later in the film that lead some reviewers to point out how the film steps away from the clichés of the genre of the sports film.

Where Sugar the film works for me is in its moments of tenderness, such as those Sugar experiences with a local waitress. It works for me when the camera juxtaposes images of the cityscapes of New York, Sugar's home in the Dominican Republic, and the fields of Iowa. It works for me in the blurring of the background as Sugar enters the collapsing maze and oppressive pings and whoops of a casino.

Sugar is a movie that wears its politics with its sympathy. It name drops Latino heroes such as Roberto Clemente and Vic Power. (I grew up well-versed in Clemente lore since my father grew up outside of Pittsburgh and thus a Pirates fan. The lore was later enhanced with research provided by David Maraniss' excellent biography Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, a book I learned about again from Zirin. Whereas, I had only been familiarized with the controversies surrounding Vic Power through passages from Burgos Jr.'s book I’d finished reading just before heading into the screening.) It is at these political talking point moments the film doesn't have the subtlety I prefer. It's moments like these where Sugar seems forced. Sugar the movie is not Burgos Jr.'s book. Burgos Jr. has the space to lay out a more nuanced argument about the history of peoples from the Spanish-speaking Americas in organized baseball.

And this history is much longer than is often recognized, from Cuban Esteban Bellán in the 1870s to the Venezuelan rookies debuting this year. And Playing America's Game seeks to remedy that by laying out the forgotten or misunderstood histories of the many Latino players. He contextualizes where they came from and how they negotiated their way into organized baseball before and after Jackie Robinson broke through the color line. Transnational links were established from Havana to DC via the Washington Senators cost-cutting efforts in the early years of the 20th century. So when similar links were established from Santo Domingo to San Francisco and our Giants in the later years of the century, this was nothing new, just a modification of previous ventures. Each Latino player had his own way of negotiating the linguistic, political, racial and economic obstacles of their sojourns, whether it be Ted Williams who didn't publicly acknowledge his Mexican ancestry while playing, or Roberto Clemente who confronted racism and poverty head-on, or Reggie Jackson who resisted the press by briefly insisting on only speaking Spanish, or Felipe Alou’s response to the racism of a San Francisco talk-show boast. Sugar does not speak for all of these players. It is a composite of the issues these players face. It works hard, sometimes too hard.

Burgos Jr.'s book offers more to me than Sugar right now, but that's because books in general are offering more to me than film. Just as baseball offers more to some than football, cricket more to some than rugby, basketball more to some than hockey. If you're one of those who value baseball, Sugar just might be the sweet spot on the glove that baseball films have been pounding for so long. For those of you who don't want to be taken out to the ball game, I do wonder if this would be the film for you. You won’t be disappointed, it’s a decent film. But I have much more to say about Burgos Jr.'s book than I do Sugar. But at least I finally got around to reading the book thanks to Sugar.

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