Errol Morris’ latest work is a tad unusual, partially because a six-part short film series released over a week and totalling 91-minutes isn’t exactly a feature film (though, in that vein, isn’t P’tit Quinquin just a TV miniseries?), but also because It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports amounts to a blurring of the line between advertisement, web shorts and film.1 ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, in which directors take on events in recent sports history (30 years) in what is supposed to be a half-hour slot on the ESPN Network (the 30-minute count, though, is rarely adhered to by directors), morphed into a varied label for shorts, features and web content. Grantland, whose founder and EIC Bill Simmons is the executive producer for 30 for 30, launched “30 for 30 Shorts” on their website in 2013.2 They’ve partnered with Morris to release these shorts on their website, but another party’s involvement is worth an eyebrow raise. Ad agency Wieden + Kennedy worked with Morris in 2012, developing a short film for ESPN’s ad campaign, also entitled “It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports”. This short, similar in tone to those in this new project, looks at fanaticism beyond (well, to be exact, within) the grave, as we see custom-made coffins that showcase one of the departed’s immortal devotion to their chosen sports team. Jeff Beer, over at Fast Company, wrote a piece on this intertwining of advertising and content, revealing that W+K shot the bumpers for each of Morris’ shorts in this project, as well as considering It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports to be “the first time an agency idea has received the kind of widespread distribution it’ll get as a TV program.”
This is not to say that the involvement of an advertising agency taints the quality or authenticity of Morris’ film, as he’s worked within that medium quite often. He’s done spots for Nike, Taco Bell, Miller High Life, the NFL and many, many more.3 Coupled with the vast amount of shorts Morris has done for the New York Times (most notably, at least in recent times, was The Umbrella Man), and his advertising, his short-form work engulfs the widely acclaimed features that comprise his filmography. An interesting thing to consider is how the techniques he’s showcased in his features developed in his short-form work, and in the case of It’s Not Crazy. It’s Sports, you can see recycled techniques and elements from his feature work, but also a scattered sense of what’s to come. The six of these all vary in form and tone, some far superior to others, but two of them in particular, one about electric football and the other about horse-racing, will hopefully be a precursor for a return to Morris’ more down-to-earth documentaries of his early career.
The first short in the collection, and perhaps the best, focuses on the world of electric football, specifically on one group of players in Charlotte, New York, who are members of a league which has existed for over 30 years under the leadership of Jim “The Duke” DiCarlo. The Subterranean Stadium has elements that showcase just how brilliant a documentarian Morris is; electric football is misdirection, the short less about the game than those who play it. Morris quickly dispenses with the actual rules of electric football; we get the sense it’s quite complex, but instead of delving into it we get a very brief overview of how one passes the ball and what constitutes a tackle.4 The rest is intentionally left out, to more clearly position the true focus of the film. It’s actually a collection of character studies, often moving, which act to reveal universal humanity behind seeming eccentricity.5 There’s an ex-con, a hot dog vendor owner, an army vet, and all of them have some profound things to say about life. One revels in the power of novels and imagination, another talks about the regret he feels at never having had children. The musical score, by Paul Leonard-Morgan, seems an effort to emulate Danny Elfman’s in-your-face music for Morris’ The Unknown Known. Robert Chappell’s photography is intercut with handheld footage by DiCarlo, who walks around his basement room filming his case of players and other assorted paraphernalia. Surprisingly the graphics used throughout are far more restrained than in other recent work from Morris. As a whole, though, it might be his best use of the short film format in It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports, moving through a cast of characters and letting them tell their own stories, whilst using one concept to lightly tie it all together, complete with a visual device in the game of electric football.
The second short in the series begins in a surprising fashion, grainy black and white footage of Errol Morris himself, headphones on, looking away from the camera. When we see who he is interviewing, it becomes clear why. The only interviewee, identified as “The Bellayer”, has his face pixellated, and is being filmed and recorded in a sound booth (presumably so that his voice can be altered if needs be, though it doesn’t look sound like it has been). The reason seems a little absurd, a group of Duke university students in the late ’90s stole the Michael Jordan jumbo jersey that adorned the rafters of the University of North Carolina basketball stadium. There’s the typical school rivalry that goes along with this caper, and Morris uses a lot of newspaper clippings (mostly college papers too) to both build suspense but also to play on the idea of sports, even curios surrounding it, are considered to be news. Unfortunately, The Heist doesn’t work anywhere near as well as the short that precedes it. It’s a slight story that isn’t particularly satisfying, even as we walk through how they took the jersey and what they did with it, it’s not particularly exciting or even worthy of this series. The craziness inherent in the act is less about sport than college, tied to an act of prankery that’s fairly simplistic and uninteresting.
Ah, the success that comes purely with an interesting subject, and with an act of prankery that is more than suitable for this shorts series. Mark Roberts, supposedly the most prolific streaker in the world, who’s run naked through events as wide-reaching as the International Synchronised Swimming Finals, the Superbowl and the Cannes Film Festival, is our man here. It’s the second short in a row with only one subject, but this time it’s in classic Morris style, an Interrotron with a one-colour background, here black. This is the most pure short so far, with regards to fulfilling the title of the collection. It’s about the unhinged within or tangential to sport, the joy found in messing with an existing structure. “Do you think that there’s this deep need inside of you to do this?”, Morris asks at one point. Roberts responds beautifully – “No.” Unlike many of the other shorts, here there are no original graphics on show, just the display of archival photos, and mostly in their original form (i.e. no text superimposed or motion added). This also happens to be one of the shortest shorts (11 min), and luckily the subject is the perfect fit for that. It’s a quick, amusing interview that will make you want to start Googling as soon as it ends.
As the Being John Malkovich reference in the title would suggest, Morris’ fourth short, Being Mr. Met, is about a question of identity. Following on from The Streaker, Morris goes again with a one-person interview, this time AJ Mass, who donned the Mr. Met suit for three years, beginning with the start of the 1994 season. This short features the first filmed re-creations, something he would do throughout Mr. Death, giving the recollections a heightened reality through the act of a false copy. In these shots, they use what looks like a modified suit, likely to avoid copyright issues but also to distance the actual figure of Mr. Met from Mass’ relationship with it. This mirrors the shift in Morris’ questions, which move towards Mass’ mental connection to the character. He talks about the character of Mr. Met “bleeding over” into his real life, with him having set the movement style of the mascot and identifying with the character he sees on-screen. Unfortunately, despite some interesting anecdotes about the life of a mascot, Being Mr. Met can’t help but pale in comparison to a This American Life segment about a high school mascot, that was so vivid I swore it was a video short when trying to recall what it was.6 The reason that succeeds is a much stronger personal and emotional connection between character and performer. Being Mr. Met leans too hard on the theory of merged identity, rather than any proof of it.
The topic of memorabilia collection seems a natural fit for It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports and Morris, rounding up a group of people who have purchased strange things as a result of their devotion to sport. It’s a shame, though, that not much else is divulged about these individuals. They exist as defined by their objects, as opposed to the people interviewed in The Subterreanean Stadium. More than any short on show, this is the one that most feels like a Morris advertisement. This is mostly because it is broken into a series of vignettes (I know, six shorts comprising a whole, and one of those shorts having five sections). It almost feels like you could just whack the ESPN logo and “It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports” at the end of each of these segments and run them throughout a baseball game. That’s not to say there isn’t some worth within this thing; there’s a perverse pleasure in seeing Morris mess with a Sothesby’s auctioneer by making him elaborate on why Ty Cobb’s dentures are less valuable than George Washington’s. That said, I wish Morris had delved deeper into the lives of the interviewees, for the little time they have on-screen they are a mostly amusing bunch. There’s a guy who purchased the Mark Sanchez ‘butt fumble’ jersey, who is a New York Jets fan who bought the jersey to prevent it falling into the hands of a Patriots fan. Another person, whose story the short is anchored around, is the purchaser of a toilet from the Toronto Maple Leaf stadium locker room. His wife is asked by Morris whether she understands why her husband thinks the toilet is so important. She says she doesn’t, but doesn’t find it that strange. He probes into whether she also has a likewise strange obsession and, whilst that brief chat is funny, I wish it had gone further into the people behind the object.
“It’s like a Cinderella story, you might say” intones Steve Coburn, as the most visually impressive of Morris’ six shorts begin.7 Chrome is about the relationship between a Coburn and the racehorse he co-owned, California Chrome. There’s a level of distance with this short due to the fame of that particular horse in America. However, Morris focuses not on the silverware but on the man. It might be called Chrome, but the story is Coburn. Like The Subterranean Stadium, this short also allows someone to define themselves and their history in a way that ends up revealing. Whilst The Streaker and Being Mr. Met are quite surface-level, here Coburn gets emotional as he tells the whirlwind story of how he came to own California Chrome and its unexpected success. Steve Coburn is an engaging on-camera presence, and his claim of being just a ‘normal guy’ in his opening voiceover is tested by his devotion to his horse. He tells us he saw the horse in a dream right before it was born, that it heard someone in the crowd yell its name and bowed to it, that it’s “like the kinda guy you would have a beer with.” That’s not to say Coburn is strange, per se, but that this quirk in fact humanises him. It’s a more subtle ‘craziness’ than the other shorts, and that makes it more impressive, because Morris understands this. It’s a short that actually takes its time over its 16 minutes, so when Coburn snaps on camera at an interviewer following a race, there’s a grounding to it, we understand his madness and disappointment and we’re with him.
You can watch all six shorts, for free, over at Grantland.