Not exactly definitive

Call it “The Curse of the Baseball Documentary.” Whatever the reason—and whatever the subject or scope—whenever anyone makes a real-life film about the game and its “essence,” something takes hold that steers the vehicle off-course.

Like Billy Martin, who wound up lifeless in a pickup truck at the bottom of a ravine, baseball documentarians tend to get a bit too giddy about their subject…too intoxicated by the color and the trappings of the game and the personalities that populate it.

The old adage “forest for the trees” comes to mind—and, alas, Jon Leonoudakis, in making his film Not Exactly Cooperstown about the Baseball Reliquary, has followed in the footsteps of Ken Burns and has “lovable-ized” his subject to a point where salient details are omitted and the full essence of what is being profiled ultimately fails to fully register. (Leonoudakis, whose previous documentary credit was as the producer of The Wrecking Crew, a film about a legendary set of 1960s studio musicians, spent two years developing Not Exactly Cooperstown, which has yet to achieve a theatrical release and is currently available for purchase as a DVD.)

Burns mostly ignored baseball west of the Hudson River in his massive comb-over of the game’s history, falling back on folksiness and nostalgia to such a degree that the DVD box set of Baseball arguably deserved an “R” rating (“R” for “Retch”). Leonoudakis, working with the Walt Whitman-meets-postmodernist Reliquary, the antidote to the game’s penchant for institutional torpor, takes a lamentably analogous approach.

As with Burns, who could have gone a long way toward redeeming his film with a series of simple entre’actes that put the faces of baseball players from the game’s various eras on screen, Leonoudakis omits mention of nearly three-quarters of the Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals (what we’ve taken to calling the “Hall of Fame for the rest of us”).

The film’s biggest failing—just like Burns’—is that it doesn’t consistently put the people who really matter on the screen. The 42 members (now 45: see the accompanying article) of the Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals are reduced to around a dozen. (Several more inductees are shown, but not identified. A few others are identified, but not shown.)

To gloss over the evidence of the Reliquary’s unique synthesis of baseball history as manifested in the incredible breadth and variety of the Eternals is to risk leaving the impression that the project is more whimsical and less thought-out than is actually the case.

Elsewhere, Leonoudakis does a solid job of capturing the “day-by-day” activities of the Reliquary—its prolific and imaginative series of exhibitions that showcase the hidden history of baseball and its assimilative aegis within Southern California’s vast array of ethnic communities. A highlight of the film is its examination of baseball’s “circle the wagons” mentality as demonstrated by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ overreaction to the whimsical “Lasordapalooza” event that the Reliquary hosted in 2009. This sequence, along with the Curt Flood-Dock Ellis footage that covers the initial Shrine of the Eternals induction ceremony, is riveting verité.

As creative (and often culturally subversive) as many of the Reliquary’s “floating museum” projects are, however, they do not and cannot stand in for the Shrine of the Eternals, which embodies the inchoate “grand design” that synthesizes their ongoing efforts. Simply presenting the yearly inductees, three at a time, in reverse order throughout the film, would make this point while building to the powerful 1999 opening ceremony, which featured Ellis’s emotional acceptance speech. Alas, it is an opportunity that is missed in the film’s current form.

Leonoudakis, who also serves as the film’s narrator, lets us know at the outset that this is in some ways more of a personal odyssey, a way back into a game from which he had been estranged, and this is oddly reinforced by the front cover of the DVD package—where the Baseball Reliquary, the ostensible subject of the film, is not even mentioned. While this curious oversight is more than compensated for on the back cover, it’s a strangely telling omission.

Also glossed over is the symbiotic relationship between the Reliquary and painter Ben Sakoguchi, whose “Unauthorized History of Baseball”—a series of more than two hundred “orange crate art” paintings—is inextricably intertwined with the impetus behind the Shrine of the Eternals. Sakoguchi is an intensely private man, so his on-camera absence is understandable, but the appearance of his work in the film without a single word of explanation is baffling.

For the Baseball Reliquary is as much about art and culture as it is about baseball. This point is made fleetingly throughout the film, but we don’t get much sense of executive director Terry Cannon’s arts background (he and fellow Reliquary founder Albert Kilchesty were significant presences in Los Angeles’ experimental film world during the ’70s and ’80s, and continually find ways to incorporate their artistic inclinations into the workings of the Reliquary.)

The film’s discussion of Cannon’s interpolation of religious trappings into the Shrine of the Eternals ceremony is fitfully amusing, but it doesn’t quite make clear that Cannon and Kilchesty have found a way to have their cake and eat it, too—via an irreverent ceremony that pits its choreography against the possibility of anarchic collapse and creates out of the chaos of its performance an unexpected, spontaneous sense of reverence. This magical, self-enfolding transformation is hard enough to describe, much less depict in a film, but there are enough clips from the various ceremonies (and Leonoudakis has picked those wisely) to provide at least a glimpse of that off-beat emotional power. While you won’t walk away from viewing the film with a full sense of what’s going on, you will at least know that something unusual is happening.

As a result of these omissions, Not Exactly Cooperstown is not quite ready for prime-time viewing. Like the Reliquary itself, it’s still a work in progress, and that’s harder to say to the filmmaker than to the architects of the Shrine of the Eternals, which is supposed to grow and change over time. As I’ve noted in posts about the Reliquary over at my Big Bad Baseball blog, it’s the next 15 years that will determine if this singular “anti-organization” can cement itself into the consciousness of baseball in a way that fixes its purpose without finding itself forced into typecasting or trivialization. Like Walt Whitman, it knows that it “contains multitudes,” even if much of what it reveals must remain hidden from those who would otherwise trample its vintage.

For Leonoudakis’s film to capture that mystery, that lingering soap bubble-like paradox, the tension between what is merely written in stone and the spirit of “all that is solid melts into air” that the Reliquary whimsically demands of all who enter into its spell, it needs to honor all the individuals who make up the public face of this progressive force for the full, open and honest embrace of the whole of baseball history (warts, wackiness, and Wambsganss). It should celebrate all of the inductees, even if only in passing; it should double down on the eloquence of keynote speakers such as Robert Elias and Jean Hastings Ardell, who epitomize the balance between a reverence for the game and a critical perspective on the economic and cultural ramifications that filter through it. It should conclude by asking if an “anti-organization” can survive its original creators, and continue to flourish in the same spirit in which it was originally conceived.

A little more work—some restructuring, plus a few additional voices to explicate the Reliquary’s playful mysteries—and those jammed-up bases will be cleared. A few adjustments at the plate, so to speak, can result in a grand slam. (While that might seem like a harsh assessment of the product in its current state, it’s what needs to be said in order to have a film that does justice to a project that began as whimsical performance art but today—against all odds—stands at the brink of becoming something much, much more. To do this, the film also needs to capture that story arc—and, despite these criticisms, such is definitely within its grasp.)

So hunker down, Mr. Leonoudakis, and give the film another time at bat in the editing process. Once you do that, a theatrical release for the film will not only be possible, it will be compulsory. You (and the Reliquary) will be forced to contend with the vagaries of “prime time”—and that will be a sight to see. It’s time to break the “Curse of the Baseball Documentary.” Once—and for all.

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