' Cinema Romantico: Catching Hell

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Catching Hell

Principally 2011’s “Catching Hell” is a re-telling of the Steve Bartman story. You know the guy – Cubs ball cap, green turtleneck, glasses, rickety old headphones, interfering with a foul ball that Cubs outfielder Moises Alou might’ve caught when his perennially cursed franchise was an improbable five outs from reaching the World Series in 2003. When Alou turned on Bartman in the immediate aftermath, so did Wrigley Field, so did the city of Chicago, so did the world. The Cubs lost that game not because of the comedy of playing errors that followed, they’d tell you, but because of Bartman’s intrusion. Director Alex Gibney, however, is not content simply to limit his story to the Friendly Confines and this event’s prelude and aftermath. No, he welcomingly broadens his scope, transforming his film into a ruminating on the meaning and need of sports scapegoats.

The film opens not with Bartman but with Buckner, as in Bill, as in the former Boston Red Sox first baseman who infamously had the ball go between his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series when his squad was but one out away from breaking The Curse of the Bambino and winning the World Series. Even after suffering defeat, a Game 7 remained, sure, but that was beside the point and Buckner was metaphorically strung up in effigy, the Goat of Goats, a man remembered not for a batting title and Gold Gloves but for one single play. For nearly twenty years he and his family were forced to endure abuse from a public mob that put the onus squarely on him for an entire team’s familiar and, frankly, for their own failings as human beings. Gibney sees Buckner’s tale as tantamount to Bartman’s. “I hope you rot in hell!” an amateur camera catches some unnamed Cubs fan hollering at Bartman. “Bill Buckner can rot in hell,” says an unnamed irate caller to some radio show in the aftermath of 1986’s Game 6. Bartman and Buckner, bless their put upon souls, were one in the same, unintentionally exposing the dark side of fandom.


Gibney scores a number of interviews, with players, reporters and fans (but not Bartman who has, rightfully, respectfully, wonderfully, turned down every single interview and public appearance and moneymaking scheme since that fateful night); but his biggest coup might be the fan who hurled a beer at Bartman and was ejected from the stadium. On camera, he appears a mild-mannered regular joe, but also, oddly (or not), unapologetic. His face is twisted into a smile the entire interview, and while it might be tinged with a teensy bit of embarrassment, mostly it’s without contrition. It’s actually kind of terrifying. And more than anything, “Catching Hell” captures the terror of a place where fans can go when they unite in the common interest of vengeance.

“Catching Hell” is about us, about fans, and our need for scapegoats; it’s about the incredible dangers of mass and instantaneous hysteria. Reams of amateur footage showing Bartman attempting to flee Wrigley Field with security elicit not simply sickness for the fate of humanity but deserved pangs of guilt for your own despicable moments as a fan. (I have a few.) A freeze-frame of Bartman that captures him in the moment when he’s suddenly made to realize the ferocious Cub-blue colossus he’s up against, is a split-second that should echo for an eternity, the fear a flash mob enraged members of a flash mob screaming and threatening to attack from all angles. A freeze-frame of Bartman that captures him in the moment when he’s suddenly made to realize the ferocious Cub-blue colossus he’s up against, is a split-second that should echo for an eternity, the fear a flash mob enraged members of a flash mob screaming and threatening to attack from all angles. I don’t mean to belittle police and military members who truly put their lives on the line day in and day out when I say the following, but the look in Bartman’s eyes in that instant is unmistakable – it is the look of a man internally thinking, “Oh my God, these people might actually kill me.”

Late in the film Gibney interviews Kathleen Rolenz, a Unitarian minister, one who knew nothing of the Cubs’ curse or of Bartman but came upon the story in researching a sermon on the nature of scapegoats. She eloquently describes the term in a religious context, how on the day of atonement a goat was chosen, and a priest took the goat into the temple in order to confer the sins of the people onto that animal.

Gibney offers a visual aid in the form of a historical painting rendering this ritual, but the truth is that we don’t really need it. He’s already caught this ritual in action, served up in the terror of that freeze frame, the most infamous baseball fan in the sport’s long history. He’s the scapegoat and you can see – literally see – incredibly sad human beings conferring their sins onto Bartman.

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