“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.” –Professor Brian O’Blivion, from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)
The Revolution Will Be Televised
Sporting events definitely exist in the real world. They exist as tangible, attendable events, most of which cost too much to go to, not to mention get drunk at. I know this, because I’ve attended a good amount of sporting events in my life, from going to the occasional Bulls game to being a White Sox season ticket holder. But the truth is that sports are, by and large, almost exclusively a television viewing experience. Most of our actual sports viewing is done at home on the couch, a bar if you’re thirsty and out of drinks, or online if you’re into watching baseball at work or don’t subscribe to a fancy soccer channel (it is 2010). It is important to acknowledge and confront that we are, in fact, seeing images on a screen, selectively chosen for us, given a soundtrack, voice over, and ultimately a comprehensive, neatly packaged narrative. In a sense, Brian O’Blivion was right: for the sports fan, television is reality, and reality is less than television.
In the brief-lived, “It’s Gonna Happen” era of Chicago Cubs baseball, for the two years they were actually good (’07, ’08), the word around town was that Aramis Ramirez was a lazy, no-good bum. This assertion, be it from the Wrigley faithful, the yokels at the Tribune or Sun-Times (I’m looking at you, Greg Couch), or even former manager Dusty Baker, always seemed crass, baseless, and well, lazy. From where I was sitting, on my couch, all I could see was a perennial All-Star who’s swing most often resembled that of a wrecking ball at full-force, a man who was consistently and obviously the Cubs’ best hitter* over a five-year span. This made me wonder, how exactly is Aramis Ramirez lazy, but simultaneously the Cubs best hitter? The answer to this is not only a matter of perception and its limitations, but also of Soviet montage.
The Kuleshov Effect
In the late 1910s, Soviet filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov set out to demonstrate the effectiveness and importance of film editing. He did so by assembling a short film, featuring a single, repeated shot of the famous actor Ivan Mozzhukhin with other shots cut in between: a plate of soup, a little girl’s coffin, and a young woman, respectively. When shown to audiences, they believed the face and its “reaction” to be different every time, first demonstrating hunger, then grief, and then lust. But really, it was just a shot of a dude staring, emotionless. The point was that montage, as a filmic tool, could be employed to create meaning through the juxtaposition and combination of images, juxtapositions which the audience would then interpret. This experiment would help form the theoretical basis for Soviet montage cinema, later expanded upon by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov, whose techniques and principles would prove invaluable in the development of cinema.
All Together Now
It was just another ordinary day of baseball watching, I’m sure, but I don’t really remember. It was 2007, and while watching the Cubs, I finally came to understand the plight of Aramis Ramirez. Aside from the occasional bat flip followed by a swag-filled home run trot, it became apparent to me that in general, the soft-spoken Aramis did not display much emotion, ever. While this stoic approach is usually cause for celebration amongst traditional fans, the general public, by way of a never-ending media echo chamber, seemed to bizarrely misinterpret his affable, quiet nature, and unfairly flip it around into the ever-disreputable tag of “lazy”.
It was precisely this lack of emotion that got me stirred up, and in casual party conversation, I began defending him: “Aramis isn’t actually lazy, he just looks lazy.” Which is true, to an extent: he has soft eyes and a quiet mouth, and, by athletic standards, is a little pudgy (read: slow). I remember one day in which he made a particularly poor play at third, which ended up costing the Cubs a run or two. After the play, as a broadcast is wont to do, they cut to a close-up of Ramirez, emotionless. The next half inning, while recapping the disastrous play, they cut to him again, in close-up, on the bench. Nothing. A blank slate. Here, everything clicked into place: his lack of emotion, or rather, his attempt at disguising his actual emotions (whatever they were), was to be interpreted by the fan at home as indifference. Indifference, as us fans know, is perhaps the worst sin an athlete can commit, which, by association, fans often turn into laziness (i.e. indifference = not caring, not caring = lazy). It was the Kuleshov effect, all over again, leading the television audience into making assumptions and assertions about Aramis’ disposition and personal thoughts.
The truth is, however, that as fans we will never really know what a player is thinking at any given moment, unless he wears it on his sleeve for the whole world to see (e.g. AJ Pierzynski, or more recently DeMarcus Cousins). And even then it’s tricky. I’m not saying Aramis Ramirez isn’t lazy – he very well could be, while also being a sensational hitter – I’m saying that the results speak for themselves. Frankly, it’s just hard to believe that a player who by all accounts does not hustle or try hard could, at the end of the day (or season), put up hitting stats that place him among baseball’s elite. So before we start insulting players that we do not know personally, it’s important to recognize that what we are watching (at home) is merely a construction of reality, which is then interpreted or misinterpreted through the visual and aural presentation of elements onscreen (i.e. meaning is generated both by context and text). For a majority of sports fans, the television really is the retina of the mind’s eye, the raw experience of sport for those who watch. But it is this very notion, that television is reality, which we must resist. So let us rise up and break the chains of passive viewership and mindless interpretation, of assessing players’ emotional states through broadcast montage, and prove O’Blivion wrong: television is only reality when we let it be that way.
*This is not disputable. It is fact. Please refer to FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, or what have you, if you want to get nitpicky. I’ll brawl in the ring of sabermetrics if I have to, and I’ll like it.
**It’s also important to note here that this theory works in reverse, and is probably even more applicable to Aramis in this manner: cutting to an emotionless face after a home run is equally as unsettling to the average fan as it is after an error, because indifference is the sin. Unless the player is white, in which case the player is noble and/or gritty.