Sunday, October 4, 2009

Film Fest Judging

The advantage of being a dilettante is that friends know you have time to spare. When the Baseball Hall of Fame asked if I would be one of a three-person panel for their 4th Annual Baseball Film Festival, I was thrilled to be asked and happy to make a space in my day to watch 13 DVDs.

I'll focus on the three award winners

The Award for Baseball Excellence went to Signs of the Times, a story of the creation of umpires' hand signals. Though Hall of Fame ump Bill Klem claimed to invent the system of signs, the film shows that Dummy Hoy, a deaf-mute ballplayer from the turn of the last century, was instrumental in its inception. But wait! Historian Bill Deane discredits the whole Hoy tale. So, it's just another nice story, one of many in baseball lore. That's disappointing. But wait! There ARE newspaper articles from around 1900 that point to Hoy as the man behind the motions. Slyly, the makers of this movie have slipped a little mystery story into the mix, and I know I didn't see that coming. Well done.

The Award for Film Making Excellence was captured by El Play. There are scores of films on the struggles of Dominican kids seeking glory in the big dollar world of American pro baseball as their sole escape from the poverty of their country. What separates El Play is its focus on the tale of one boy, who has all it takes to sign a major league contract. This prospect even has his uncle on his side, his tio a scout/agent for the big league clubs. It's all presented optimistically, so when you get the news that the boy doesn't have any speed, uh oh, the feeling that things are going to go wrong makes you a little queasy. Then he gets cut! By his own uncle! It's really, really sad. Of course, a new hopeful emerges, and the cycle begins anew. This all takes place in 30 minutes. Excellent film, worth finding.

The Best Film Award went to a movie that may be the best baseball movie, and possibly the best documentary, I've ever seen. Lost Son of Havana tracks Luis Tiant's journey back to Cuba, the homeland he had to leave when he was a mere child of 21 and starting his pitching career in the US. When Castro forced emigres to come home or stay away forever, El Tiante made the decision to remain in the States and pursue his dream. Leaving all his family behind, Luis made it big. But he suffered.

This intensely personal story, of the plight of the people left behind and the internal struggle of Tiant balancing personal triumph on field with the pain of deserting his family for over 40 years will leave you in a puddle. The footage of early Tiant, in his debut at Yankee Stadium in 1964, and pitching for the Twins in the 1970 playoffs, is new to me, as was the coverage of Tiant's father, a great Negro League pitcher himself, throwing out a first pitch at Fenway Park with his son beaming from behind the mound, holding his pop's jacket as the old man delivers.

To be fair to the other entries, Lost Son is in another league. Produced by major Hollywood players The Farrelly Brothers, and narrated by Oscar winner Chris Cooper, it was aired on ESPN a few months back. Lost Son towers over the other films in the festival in big name talent and budget. But you know what, we've all seen major films that suck, and low budget flicks that pull at our emotions and win us over. That Lost Son is as good as The Buena Vista Social Club is a testament to its storytelling ability, not its power players. That El Play and Signs of the Times are wonderfully emotional tales made with as much passion, though less dollars, shows why they too, are holding their trophies.

El Play winners, Signs of the Times winners, fellow judge Rob Edelman, and me (on far right).

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