Monday, May 02, 2011

Misfire in Babylon - Part Deux

I'm glad Satadru has written a critical view of Fire in Babylon; my initial take over at Different Strokes seems to have concentrated almost exclusively on offering thanks for being able to view the West Indies' might again in an era of rapidly sanitized test cricket and where the presence of the current West Indian team is a depressing reminder of what we miss. I do have a particularly emotional reaction to the West Indies because I've come to realize over the years that one's first contact with the game colors our perceptions of everything that follows; for me that occurred during the West Indian tour of India in 1974-75 when Andy Roberts became synonymous with 'scary fast bowler' and Viv Richards with "powerful hard-hitting batsman'.

But the more complex, and nuanced story that actually sits squarely at the heart of West Indian cricket is one that gets trampled in the process of providing us this wallow in past West Indian glory. For what it is worth, I think the Empire in Cricket documentary made by the BBC 'did' better history and framed West Indian cricket better.

In one of my closing paragraphs, I noted that purely as a documentary Fire in Babylon suffered; I suspect that is because Fire in Babylon works better as an extended photo album: look at the highlights, see the cricketers in action, but do not assume you are being a told a good, complete, or even accurate story. It is an extended highlight reel - and we don't use that for story-telling.

Indeed, I found, like Satadru, the filmmakers' claims (in the question-answer session that followed the movie) about 'authenticity' to be bizarre: why would interviewing batsmen, or noting Frank Worrell's contributions, have made the movie less 'authentic'? I think they were struggling to say that they wanted to tell the West Indian story, but how is that achieved by a one-sided emphasis on intimidation? Ironically, the emphasis on intimidation might make the point Christopher Martin-Jenkins sometimes seemed desperate to make: that the West Indies won because they battered their opponents into submission, not because they possessed genuine fast bowling skill. Its worth pointing out that Michael Holding's 14 wicket haul at the Oval in 1976 was achieved on a flat pitch during a hot English summer where temperatures hit the high 30s. Someone relying exclusively on the bouncer doesn't get to do that.

This complaint about Fire in Babylon reinforces one of my pet peeves: why can't we get a truly outstanding documentary about cricket? Why has cricket not produced a Ken Burns? There are gigantic archives of test cricket footage out there with the BBC, ABC, Channel 9, Doordarshan etc. Is it really so difficult to put something together that does justice to the needs of the historian and the cricket fan alike?

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Anonymous Russ said...

Samir, a couple of comments:

According to several accounts, the film-makers did interview lots of non-West Indians, but chose not to include that footage to focus on the West Indian side. There are benefits to both approaches, but they certainly did their research.

Remember it is not a film of West Indian cricket, but a select period of the game. Perhaps the framing could be better, but Empire of Cricket had the advantage of being able to focus across the breadth of history. (by the by, but I found Empire of Cricket very uneven, the Windies excellent, England and India mediocre, and Australia terrible).

Finally, also per accounts, the footage available is not free, and the film-makers suffer for that. Burns documentary spends 5 episodes prior to 1940, and 8 prior to 1970. Mostly panning over black and white photographs with a sound overlay. Those periods suit his style, but it also saved him negotiating for modern tv rights.

11:26 PM  

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