Terrence Malick and 1920s baseball.
Do I need to say any more? It’s perfect. Terrence Malick is the lauded director of films such as “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line,” “The Tree of Life,” and “To the Wonder.” He is considered by some people a genius, and his films have certain elements that make them unique and sometimes unforgettable. He is also the perfect person to adapt my book Damn Senators. I don’t say this for egotistical reasons, although I am proud of my book. I genuinely think that an adaptation of it by Malick could be a joy for the director, help his career, and result in a genuinely unique and great baseball film — perhaps the greatest baseball film of all time.
Damn Senators is about my grandfather, who was a baseball player for the Washington Senators, and the 1924 World Series, which the the Senators won. The pitcher for the team was Walter Johnson, arguably the greatest hurler in the history of baseball, and the story of how the Senators got the the Series is one of the great stories in the history of the game. To have such a plot to work with would be great for Malick, whose recent film To the Wonder got some negative reviews, with critics arguing that the director, who has always had an ethereal and oblique vision, has become too obtuse. A baseball film would allow Malick to explore the things that make his films special, yet also tether him to a plot that is palatable to average filmgoers. He wouldn’t need to alter a thing about his cinematic genius, but the audience would have a solid reference point to come to over the course of a couple hours.
There are certain common elements in a Terrence Malick film, trademarks that have made him my favorite director, and a film about American baseball in the 1920s would be a glorious and natural palette for the auteur to work with. First, Malick is interested in metaphysical ideas. His characters, most often men, wonder, often in minimalistic and poetic voice overs, about the meaning of love, joy, suffering, and death. They wrestle with the question of God. Second, Malick seems fascinated by prelapsarian environments, places that have not been spoiled by man or machinery. In “Days of Heaven” it’s a Texas farm in early twentieth century. In “The Thin Red Line” it’s an island in the Pacific that serves as a paradise away from the destruction of World War II. In “To the Wonder” it is Mont St. Michel, a gorgeous monastery off the coast of Normandy. And lastly, Malick’s cinematography is often astonishingly beautiful. He likes to shoot in outdoor settings and in warm organic settings — Texas, the Pacific Islands — and only uses natural light.
Imagine what Malick could do with baseball and America in the 1920s. The game always brings out the theologian in artists, who dilate on baseball’s timeless quality and spiritual overtones; there was once an article in Harper’s magazine by a Buddhist who compared the trip around the bases to the journey through life. In 1924 Walter Johnson, the star pitcher for the Senators, was thirty-six and towards the end of his career, and the autumnal grandeur of his pitching the end of Game 7 in October against the New York Giants is a natural Malick set-piece. Then there is the idea that a baseball diamond in the summer has the kind of soft Edenic aesthetic that Malick is drawn to; Damn Senators takes before the Great Depression and World War II, even before the era of artificially lighting baseball games. Best of all, Malick is willing to break rules. As Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick’s cinematographer on “The Tree of Life,” noted, “Photography [for Malick] is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance. We’re using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential. It’s meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume.” An adaptation of Damn Senators by Malick could be a beautiful film that, like Malick’s other films, is about a lot more than its putative subject. It would be the best imaginable kind of baseball film, because, like baseball, it would be about a lot more than the sport.