' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Bull Durham (1988)

Friday, May 10, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Bull Durham (1988)

Though principally about the relationship between a minor league pitcher and catcher, “Bull Durham” nevertheless opens with a female fan, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who in voiceover states straight away that she doesn’t need a man to be fulfilled. It seems like a big deal now and it must have felt like an even bigger breath of fresh air then, writer/director Ron Shelton evincing “an ideal world”, as Kelsey McKinney put it in her wonderful ode to Annie for the film’s 30th anniversary, a world where “a woman’s opinions on baseball are taken seriously enough to be fought with, and to be considered seriously.” Indeed, Shelton never bores us with the scene where some oafish dude questions Annie’s cred. No, when Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins), new, hot pitcher for the Minor League Durham Bulls, gets a note in the dugout from Annie about bending his back while he pitches, he seeks her out afterwards to offer thanks. “You’re right,” he says, “I wasn’t bending my back.” And if Annie eventually explains she teaches part-time, that comes across more like writerly explanation for her Walt Whitman fetish, which is not a criticism. No, her soul belongs to baseball. She’s a precursor, of sorts, to the preeminent tension in the movie “Moneyball” between science and romance, scouting reports and metaphysics, batting stances and Whitman, proof that it doesn’t have to be either/or; it can be both.

That’s not to suggest “Bull Durham” goes all in on The Bill James Baseball Abstract. What is catcher Crash Davis’s (Kevin Costner) famous monologue but a statement of conservatism? He believes the designated hitter should be outlawed AND Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone? If Crash did, in fact, become a minor league manager in Salem, a job offer the Durham Bulls skip teases toward the end, you can easily imagine him subscribing to the traditional orthodox of bunting runners over and intentionally walking feared opposition. Still, there is a knowing edge to Crash, epitomized in how he encourages Nuke, his young charge, to master the art of the interviewing cliché, glimpsed in a hysterical scene that is a takedown of virtually every non-Gregg Popovich sports interview of our current age. Crash has seen both sides, in other words, which is what Costner’s winningly weary performance suggests, a guy not with something to prove because he’s already run out of time to prove it, the lack of time left connecting straight to the weariness. “I’m the player to be named later,” he says in his iconic introductory line, told with droll observational skill honed on the back of understanding How It All Works.

Robbins is a perfect counterpoint to Costner, the former’s height and gangliness evoking someone who has yet to completely master the awkward contours of his body, demonstrated both in his mound countenance and everyday air, truly embodying the “energetic man child” that Shelton’s screenplay cites. And though the character is something of a cocksure hotshot, Robbins still makes him likable by giving the cockiness a ring of insouciance, someone almost indifferent to the ability he inherently possesses. That is what aggravates Crash, Nuke’s unwillingness to respect the game he plays. That might connote the idea of Jonathan Papelbon attacking Bryce Harper for not running out a pop fly, an act of aggression that does not seem beyond Crash, frankly, though “Bull Durham’s” idea of this respect boils down less to rigid unwritten code and more about respect for yourself. Shelton, though, never swaths this sentiment in any kind of sanctimony, his world-building all acute bawdiness and bravado. During his at-bats, Crash converses with himself in a manner at once arrogant and professional, a knowing nod to the idea that these two must co-exist side-by-side

If Crash is teaching Nuke to respect the game he is simultaneously teaching himself how to leave the game behind, suggesting the same fate Nuke will face in the future, though Robbins’s performance makes clear that truism about youth being wasted on the young. It’s an end, however, that Crash mostly suffers in private, illustrated in how he strives to make his ascent on the minor league home run record secret, dismissing it as “a dubious honor”, presented outwardly as just one more at-bat. This record and his attempt to retire becomes intertwined with this burgeoning affection for Annie, and her burgeoning affection for Crash becomes intertwined in her own realization that she might be able to find a kind of fulfillment in love after all, both of them not so much trying to find a way renounce baseball, necessarily, but merely allow other elements into their lives. Thankfully “Bull Durham” does not imply that they have turned a corner, necessarily, never mind found Happily Ever After. No, the movie ends with them dancing together, a rhythmic approximation of digging your toes into the batter's box and getting ready to take what life throws at you.

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