Monday, October 01, 2007

­BFF: High and Outside

So, remember how I described The Poet as the Festival's Closing Night film? Well, it was billed as such, but the festival went on for one more night, with High and Outside and a second screening of Million Calorie March. I guess they didn't know whether they'd have this night or not (the website said the fest ran through the 21st in some places and the 20th in others).

This review was a bear to write, in large part because it was hard to separate out, a week later, which stories Bill Lee told on-screen and which ones came out during the Q&A afterward. Bill Lee is a funny guy, and still a fan. It is kind of a riot to hear him go off on Jason Varitek and Carlton Fisk; he really doesn't seem to like catchers that much.

High and Outside

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

It's probably pretty easy to make a fairly entertaining documentary about Bill "Spaceman" Lee: Point a camera at him, ask a question, and let him go. Repeat until out of questions or time, do a little follow-up with the people he mentions in those interviews, and find some archive footage to edit in. You won't wind up with one of the greatest baseball movies of all time, but what you get should certainly entertain the folks in New England and Quebec, where Lee played his big-league ball.

In fact, High and Outside is the second film in as many years to be built around him. Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey came out last year, chronicling his trip to Cuba to see and play baseball there; I imagine the two crews must have crossed paths at some point. This movie's focus, if you believe the title, is how his recreational marijuana use and tendency to make things difficult for team and league management led to him being blackballed from Major League Baseball. It's happy to wander, though, allowing Lee to spout off about pitching, hitting, the noisy kids who knocked over his mailbox, or anything else that might cross his mind.

"Bill Lee talking" isn't a bad basis on which to build a movie. As much as he talks about liking his adopted Vermont home because there aren't many people nearby, he'll happily talk an audience's ear off. He got the nickname "Spaceman" for sometimes being way out-there, and he seems to have actually gotten more of an education in college that the stereotypical college athlete, so he's one of those guys where it's often a toss-up between whether he's really smart or thinks he's smarter than he actually is. Even when Lee sounds like he's full of crap, though, he's full of crap in an interesting way. The inside of his house is filled with books with the odd baseball glove stuck in between them, which sums him up pretty well.

His stories are interesting, too. He talks a lot about how a team's union representative was more likely to be traded, recounts the 1975 World Series, and the 1978 race with the Yankees. Thirty years later, he still has a real, visceral hate of New York's team, born out of a couple of nasty brawls that did some damage to his pitching shoulder. As a Sox fan, it's fun to see that. As much as Fox and ESPN push those games now, while the teams obsequiously talk about how much you have to respect the other, they truly despised each other back then. There's a funny bit about how the world would have been a much better place if he had pitched down the stretch; his stories about how he only used marijuana as a condiment are also a stitch.

The film's biggest fault, I suppose, is that it's a little too much in Lee's corner. Director Peter Vogt consistently portrays him as a likable eccentric, which is true enough - how can you not be fond of a guy who enjoys the game of baseball so much that he still plays in organized leagues when he's pushing sixty? It's telling that there are no interviews with, say, Don Zimmer (the manager he feuded with in Boston), the way his hard-partying ways destroyed his marriage in Montreal is given only a passing mention, and there's basically one comment from Bernie Carbo about how Lee's own behavior might have hastened the end of his career. Yes, the information is there, but it's presented as bumps in the road, with Lee always in the right, rather than as facets of a complex and sometimes flawed man.

That makes High and Outside kind of a puff piece, but at least one that knows its audience. Red Sox fans, at the very least, should enjoy this, as should fans of a more colorful era in baseball.

Also at EFC.

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