Address to the America's Forum, Wesleyan University on
" The Lost Son of Havana" and "The Two Escobars," April 2011
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Sports Filmmakers in the Americas: The Politics of Access
Almost nothing in film, literature or culture, is as predictable as the conventional sports narrative. You find the basic formula in the vast majority of sports novels and films. And you can often find it in sports biographies and documentaries, as well. The formula turns a sporting event, or a sporting career, into a metaphor for a specific city, or country, or community, at a specific moment in time. According to the formula, sports can inspire people, console them, bring them together, or perhaps just represent "the indomitable nature of the human spirit." You know the drill. The formula is very handy. If, when watching sports, we encounter something we're not familiar with, we can reduce it to something that we are familiar with.
The two films we've watched together, The Lost Son of Havana and The Two Escobars, are very different from each other. But one of the reasons they're both so much worth watching, is that they successfully resist the formula. Each is detached from, and even critical, of the myths we normally create, around sporting events and sporting careers. After watching both films, I would argue, viewers are left with a great deal of uncertainty about what to make of what they have just seen and learned. Both films expose the viewer to ambiguity, and neither allows us to take refuge in a formula. Viewers learn something from these films. And because of what they learn, they cannot merely be inspired by the resilience of Luis Tiant, or the focused professionalism of Andres Escobar. They must also be dismayed by the painful and complex situations these men had to deal with in their lives.
The Luis Tiant we meet at the opening of The Lost Son of Havana, seems familiar to anyone who's ever been a fan of Tiant. And I, myself, was a great fan of Luis Tiant in the 1970s. As Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk made clear in the film, and as most fans of the team understood at the time, Tiant was the central figure in the family dynamic of the '70s Red Sox. As Fisk says at one point, in The Lost Son of Havana, Tiant was the son, the father, and the brother.
Fans enjoyed what this film represents so well: the avuncular charisma that Tiant has, because of his warm, physical presence; his alert, smiling eyes; and his quiet, playful, philosophical good humor. Tiant seems like someone you could turn to, you could rely upon, would stick up for you. Peter Gammons, at one point, says that Tiant would protect a lead, as if it were a member of his family. People cannot avoid the metaphor of family when talking about Tiant, and of course, this points us to the great irony of his life. The man who seems to be part of everyone's family, had to live in exile from his own.
At the beginning of the film, Tiant says that he wants to return to Cuba, after forty-six years of exile, in order to complete his life. This, he says, is something he must do before he dies. He has, of course, no idea of what he will encounter, and this richly textured film is very good at avoiding predictability, at giving viewers a sense that they're along for a ride, which may offer some surprises. The filmmaker allows us to share Tiant's point of view, and observe him in numerous, extended close-ups. We see how Tiant uses cigars, toothpicks and gum, to create his own posture, as an observer. And when his plane lands in Havana, we see that when he is deeply moved, he touches his face, and massages his scalp.
Tiant's first close encounter with a former acquaintance in Cuba is a telling one, and it is difficult. As he approaches his old home, he meets an old buddy and neighbor named Fermin. Fermin is glad to see him, but he mixes his expressions of surprise and affection, with an undisguised resentment. "I missed you a lot," he tells Tiant. "I was hurt and angry with you. I tell it to you straight, I wanted to see you, but I, because I've had a lot to talk to you about. Damn, Luisito, I'm pissed as hell." Tiant, uncomfortable and forgiving, embraces Fermin, with an uncertain smile on his face. Fermin turns to some people and says, "This is Luis Tiant. We played hardball as kids. My uncle was the one who signed him. When we used to practice, they'd say, 'They're gonna sign you for sure.' Everybody thought I'd sign first, but he signed. And me? Well, it would've been an honor." It would've been an honor. But Fermin hasn't had a lot of honor in his life. He continues, "No one around here listens, because they've decided I'm nobody. Luisito used to be the boss. They treat me like shit." In this scene, Tiant sees that he's going to be encountering a lot of people who led disappointing lives, and who are going to view his success, in the context of those lives. Even if they're glad to see him, even if they are proud of his success, are they going to forgive him for it? Is there something to forgive? Does he forgive himself? These questions are not fair, but they don't go away. Sensing Tiant's vulnerability, Fermin reproaches him. "I don't know why," he says, "But you were forgetful." Tiant won't take this. He wasn't forgetful, he points out. He sent things to his parents, but they were confiscated.
As the film continues, Tiant encounters other friends and relatives. Many of these interactions are gratifying. He learns that he is loved, remembered, and an object of reverence, to Cuban baseball fans. These interactions are presented alongside of a beautifully edited account of Luis Tiant's baseball career, a great career by a man with great talent, who with his intelligence and character was also resourceful and adaptive, reinventing and reincarnating himself several times. We see that he has led a successful and distinguished life.
Yet near the end of the film, perhaps slightly overwhelmed by what he has encountered in Cuba, trying with great difficulty to determine how he should feel about all of these unhappy yet admiring friends and relatives, Tiant seems to break down a little. "Family is the most important, and because of that I felt uncomfortable," he says. "Too much time has passed, that I shouldn't have let go by. I thought I wouldn't be able to see you again. I was going to come in '61, but my father sent me a letter saying not to come, because there was no professional baseball." We know this already. Everyone around him knows this. Why does he feel compelled to repeat it? "They gave their lives for me," he continues, referring to his parents. "So that I could succeed, so that I could become someone. It's so hard, so hard." A cousin grasping the bars on the window offers comfort. "It's like that. The time that needed to go by has gone by, and you can't beat yourself up, because life is like that." "But when you're talking about your family," Tiant says, "That's something different. And the problem is that we're all going to die, one day or another, and people that you left healthy and safe, and now you come back, and you run into all this?" He shakes his head and cries. His cousin tries to console him again. "Don't worry about that, Cousin. What we want is for you to be happy. It was their time, the ones who died, it was their time. You don't need to blame yourself for any of that." "No, I don't blame myself," he responds. "But it could've been different. Things could've been different."
How could they have been different? Tiant poses this question several times in the film. And he never comes any closer to an answer. He knows he is not responsible for his parents' suffering. He knows he is not responsible for the hard and disappointing lives of his relatives, friends, and neighbors in Cuba. But he does not know what to make of what has happened. He says at the end of the film that he has found the closure he was looking for. He says that having visited Cuba, "I guess I can say I can close my book now. If I die, I die happy." Perhaps. But the viewer, and I suspect Tiant himself, remains haunted by uncertainty, and a sense of loss.
He remains in a situation that resembles the enormously moving scene in the film, where he visits his parents' grave. He touches the gravestone once for each parent, and the viewer cannot help but be reminded of the moment earlier in the film, where Tiant's mother is described as touching the television screen repeatedly, and crying as she watches her son in exile, pitching in the 1968 All-Star game. There's the touch, but the barrier remains. And at a moment at which, in a conventional sports narrative, a player would observe that at least he got to see his parents, and that they're now up in Heaven looking down on him, Tiant expresses an honest and perhaps unexpected skepticism. He observes that he doesn't really have enough of a reason to believe in the afterlife. He's glad that he had his parents back for fifteen months, but he doesn't expect to encounter them again. What remains perfectly clear, although it remains unsaid, is how deeply he regrets not having had them for fifteen years. How deeply he regrets not having been back to Cuba for forty-six years. The visit to Cuba, like the twice-weekly visit to the gravesite, is necessary for him, but it doesn't bring anything back. What has been lost, remains lost.
Like The Lost Son of Havana, The Two Escobars leaves us with a sense of the pathos of unanswerable questions. The Two Escobars is a very different film from The Lost Son of Havana, in style, tone, and content. While The Lost Son of Havana has an elegiac quality, and focuses on the emotional journey of a single individual, The Two Escobars has a rapid, jagged pace, loud and thrilling soccer footage, lucid exposition, and a compelling and disturbing narrative.
In this impressive film, I was particularly impressed by the dramatic individual performances in the interviews. Andres Escobar's sister, and his fiancé. Maturana, the coach of the national team. Pablo Escobar's first cousin, Jaime, and-are all attractive, and convincing, as they tell their stories. The most riveting interview I found, was Popeye, an exceptionally articulate and intelligent man interviewed in prison, who matter of factly tells the interviewers that he's killed two hundred and fifty people, and dismembered many of them.
Everyone interviewed tells a story that is plausible. But if all of these stories are plausible, you get a sense of just how difficult it must have been to be Andres Escobar. Just as we learned in The Lost Son of Havana, that Luis Tiant has had to deal with much more complicated problems than developing a new way to pitch after his scapula was broken, Andres Escobar, in his brief life, had to negotiate a much more complex terrain than any soccer field. And as we watch his life recounted, through the interviews and footage, a clear idea does not emerge, of whether he handled this terrain successfully. We even have a sense that he did not. We come away with an idea of the purity of his intentions, and the rigor of his professional ethic. But we cannot escape the impression that he was, as anyone would've been in these waters, over his head.
Let's say that Colombia had won the World Cup in 1994, in games as thrilling as the qualifying game against Argentina that is so vividly represented in the film. Colombia would certainly have experienced a powerful and unfamiliar sense of communal pride and self-satisfaction. That is what a great sports triumph conventionally does for a community. Would this have been good, then? Considering the degree to which drug money had helped to make possible Colombia's soccer ascendancy? Did Colombia deserve this unity, this ceremonial cleansing, and this happiness? Did Andres Escobar and his appealing teammates deserve this triumph? To what degree can this team be dissociated from what surrounded to them, from what they accepted when they visited Pablo Escobar, received their bonuses, and treated him to a soccer game after lunch? Andres Escobar made this visit with his teammates, even though we are told that he didn't want to.
If Andres Escobar had been the hero of that hypothetical World Cup Championship, what would've been the meaning of his heroism and athletic prowess? Could he, or anyone, have had a pure artistic triumph, in a situation like this? Or was his play, however beautiful, automatically corrupted by surrounding circumstances?
What are we to make of Pablo Escobar himself? How seriously can we take the Robin Hood-style mythologization that the articulate people closest to Escobar are urging us to accept. Popeye, the man who killed hundreds, including many innocent policemen, and perhaps some soccer referees, tells us with his characteristic succinctness, that when Pablo Escobar died, the wealthy celebrated, the criminals cried in prison, and the poor went to his funeral. We then see evidence of the fact that this assertion may be true.
Is it in fact the case that no one would've dared assassinate Andres Escobar, if Pablo Escobar had still been alive? If this is the case, to what degree can we extricate the two Escobars from each other?
This remarkable documentary does not provide answers to any of these questions. It presents us with the complexity of a situation that would've been impossible to live through, and remains impossible to satisfactorily understand. This isn't an inspiring story. And it is, to some degree, a story about the unraveling of a community that was denied the specious sense of unity that a sports triumph might've provided them with. Sports, as Maturana says at one point in the film, ignites people's passions. It manifests their dreams. But sports, like art, is created by the human imagination. It is a beautiful thing, without intrinsic meaning. We give it meaning. But it never really has the meaning we give it. And, for all that we try to preserve and assert its purity, it never has purity. It is always affected by what happens in the world around it. The success of my beloved New York Mets is inextricably connected, at the moment, to the progress of a lawsuit, brought on behalf of victims of a swindler. And the fortunes of Colombian soccer, in the 1990s, could never be extricated from the politics, and the legal and illegal economy of a deeply troubled nation.
There is some positive feeling at the end of The Two Escobars, as several people close to Andres Escobar each refer to, and read from an article Andres Escobar wrote at the end of his life, in which he observes that life doesn't end here. This is a nice thought, and the beautiful smile of Andres' sister, after she repeats this line, is very moving. It's nice to learn in the film's final frames, that drug violence in Colombia has been reduced considerably. But the fact remains that Andres Escobar's life did end there. And the fact remains that the great era of Colombian soccer was made possible by drug money. These are facts that won't go away, facts that the film makes us aware of. We emerge with a greater sense of what was lost, than of anything that was gained. Just as we find at the end of The Lost Son of Havana, that Tiant's exile from his family and homeland, is not something for which he can easily be consoled, we don't, I think, emerge from The Two Escobars with the sense that there is any positive meaning to the death of Andres Escobar.
I do, however, want to say that I find a great deal of positive meaning in the existence of these two superb documentaries. I find it exhilarating to learn something about the personal and cultural context of sport. American sports fans normally learn nothing about other cultures as they watch sports, in spite of the fact that a specific number of the athletes we watch are from other cultures.
We are, of course, imprisoned within the extraordinary degree of cultural ignorance that is characteristic of American sports journalism. In recent years, I've listened on the radio to a debate about Carlos Delgado's patriotism between two reporters, who were unaware that Puerto Rico is not a foreign country. I've read articles about how Johan Santana is so highly regarded in his native Venezuela, that he's had dinner several times with the president of the country. And these articles were written by people who didn't know who the president of Venezuela was, and who were apparently unaware of the fact that he's a controversial figure.
Although it's tempting, I'm not going to fall here into the elitist trap of berating the American public for its lack of interest in other cultures. All of us Americans exist inside of this hegemonic bubble. This week, in a class in Hofstra's honors college, I'm teaching a book by a very impressive author named Lu Xun, who is apparently the most widely read Chinese author of the twentieth century. Until Hofstra's only professor of Chinese put him on our syllabus, I had never heard of Lu Xun, and I am a professor of literature.
To be honest, it may be too much to expect of sports fans, that they develop an interest in the cultures of people who play on their teams, when they are understandably only concerned with having players who will play well for them. I don't think, however, that it is too much to expect that sports might provide us with an opportunity to learn something about other cultures. These films take advantage of this opportunity, and they offer us something rich and valuable.
We Americans see the world of sports as if we were looking at one side of a tapestry. We see our own dreams and stories. We see the picture that has been created for us, but we don't see the stitching behind, and we don't see what people from other places see. It will remain like this for as long as we assume that Americans can only really identify with people from other countries if we can find something about them that is exactly like what we already know. I dream of a day when more sports culture will escape the formula. Someday I hope that we'll be able to watch Olympic coverage, in which we are invited to become interested in a foreign athlete who does not have a dead or severely ill parent.
The value of these two fine films is that while showing us that people from other cultures have a lot in common with us, and can be understood by us, they also show us that their experiences are not entirely the same as ours. The experiences of Colombians and Cubans are, like our own experiences, general and unique, universal and culturally specific. If we want the humanity of people from other cultures, we would do well to understand that their experiences are not the same as ours, and they cannot be made to resemble ours, by being crammed into the contours of the formulaic sports story.
I thank the filmmakers, and everyone involved in their films, for showing me that sports are not always an expression of the indomitable spirit, and the value of the community. Sometimes sports provide us with an opportunity to explore uniqueness and ambiguity. Sometimes they show us what Luis Tiant's family friend in Miami, Hortencia, says, as she thinks of him going to Havana. "Oh God," she says. "Life is so big."