Thursday, March 24, 2016

Netflix Sports Hagiography: Nash (2013)

In retrospect, it is incredible how much crap managed to fill up video stores.  The VHS cassette sustained ubiquity for about 15 years, and during that time approximately two zillion forgettable movies moldered on local outlets' shelves.  Local video rental places, before they were driven out of business by Blockbuster locations sporting 40 copies of whatever Val Kilmer action movie came off the truck that week, offered new releases, old classics, and whatever junk the owners could get hold of: forgotten bombs, little-known arthouse films, fifty minutes of Ernest commercials called The Ernest Film Festival which I once rented on VHS and now some person has put on youtube.

Somewhere, there is a dark, unreleased direct-to-video Ernest movie where Vern and the authorities 
finally find out wha' he mean and it is unspeakable

Streaming services are these new video stores.  Alongside well-known films and television shows, there exists a seamy underworld of filmed entertainment on the remainder pile-- crappy movies relegated to the dustbin internet, straight-to-dvd stoner comedies no doubt acquired as the televisual equivalent of players to be named later in a byzantine rights deal, reality television shows about either trucks or people slapping each other, and sports documentaries.  There are countless sports documentaries on Netflix alone outside prestige brands like ESPN's 30 for 30 series, and it is impossible to tell if any of them are decent or 90 minutes of a person alternating exercise and talking into a go-pro camera.

The motley menagerie of streaming sports films includes the sports hagiography.  These films are soft-focus biopics of current stars.  They tell the story of an athlete's brand and how that brand overcame obstacles to become good at sports and heroically inform the populace about insurance and cell phone plans.  Some of these films are well-made and straightforward.  Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot, for example, focuses on Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki and his unconventional training regimen with trainer Holger Gerschwinder.  It is basically a feature-length Michael Lewis story.  The most interesting thing about the film is that it is German and therefore requires Mavs GM Donnie Nelson to explain the concept of the NBA draft.

Nash is a sports hagiography with more ambition.  It profiles Steve Nash the basketball star, Steve Nash the philanthropist, Steve Nash the filmmaker, Steve Nash the Renaissance man and in doing so becomes at times indistinguishable in tone from a multi-level marketing scheme.

Nash boasts a star-studded list of talking-head interviews that includes basketball figures, celebrities, and the literal sitting president of the United States. 

The film comes to life after an endless flourish of production company logos and throws a whole lot of Steve Nash at the viewer: a Steve Nash press conference about staying on the suns, an arty Steve Nash montage, some encouraging words from Ron Howard, Owen Wilson, and President Obama, and a Nietzsche quote.

Then Nash, with his gravelly Will Arnett voice, tells the story of Sisyphus over an animated stick figure.

Nash contains multitudes.  There are at least two or three sports movies stacked within the film like matryoshka dolls.  The traditional Steve Nash origin story unfolds to chart his improbable rise from a slight, obscure Canadian to improbable NBA stardom.  The film covers his bitter divorce from the Dallas Mavericks.   Nash's first scene takes place at a press conference announcing his decision to stay with the Phoenix suns and then picks up on the thread some 45 minutes later.  It is only after the hobnobbing with Ron Howard, the riding of skateboards, and the discussion of digital marketing that the music swells and we find ourselves in the 2010 NBA playoffs.  Somewhere in between, Nash himself narrates a segment about him lighting the Olympic Torch and playing in the All-Star game in the style of a reality TV show before the conceit is mercifully dropped.  The movie ends with what appears to be a hastily-inserted coda detailing his move to the Lakers; the credits roll before he succumbs to injury, becomes a scapegoat for an underachieving team, and is subjected to an entire season of Dwight Howard who I like to imagine spent several days following him around yelling Steve Steve Steve Steve Steve Steve before making a Dwight Howard face and collapsing into a fit of giggles alongside a paid entourage that laughs alongside him, its members shoving each other in fits of simulated mirth.

The rest of the film is devoted to Nash's manifold interests.  Numerous talking heads note that Steve Nash dislikes celebrity, despite "celebrity" appearing on the film's opening word cluster of Steve Nash traits in a movie devoted entirely to Steve Nash.  The film devotes large amounts of time to his nobler efforts like his global philanthropy and outspoken opposition to the Iraq War.  They appear alongside his efforts to break into filmmaking and extremely 2010 digital marketing that promises to give clients a presence on Flickr.  The two occasionally make odd juxtapositions:

More than anything, Nash reaches for arthouse sophistication through sheer visual spectacle.  As it careens from topic to topic, each transition requires an overwrought time-lapse montage set to post-rock music.  How, for example, are viewers supposed to understand that Nash is in New York without seeing commuters blur through Grand Central Station or understand he is in Washington without a dramatic dutch-angle view of the Lincoln Memorial leading into a Barack Obama talking head helpfully chyroned "Barack Obama: President of the United States."  This isn't just a Nash problem; the grammar of helicopter shot and time-lapse transition is so deeply embedded in documentary films and reality television that I'm surprised that airports don't feature large screens with them so people can understand they've moved to another location; oh I'm in Los Angeles now, the city with the slowly tracking palm trees and the time-lapse cars whirring around the freeways in red streaks. 

Nash is disjointed; its scenes appear to have been assembled like a magazine cut-out murder threat.  The addition of the Lakers coda suggests that the film sat idle for some years while acquiring production company logos.  My theory is that the actual Nash-related parts took a few weeks to film and then the directors spent the next several years capturing time-lapse train station footage, rare shots of the Hollywood sign to convey the concept of "Los Angeles," and hours of bucket drumming to sprinkle throughout.

Steve Nash played enjoyable basketball.  He has always come across as unusually thoughtful and self-aware, not only in this film but in the Jack McCallum Seven Seconds or Less book or in his melancholy comeback film that turned into an elegy for his career.  Nash offers a portrait of him beyond his NBA feats as a complex, thoughtful, human being while at the same time offering complex, thoughtful, and human as a brand in its own right.  Of course, it is hard to tell exactly what this movie is driving at beyond the fact that some time-lapse enthusiasts got a lot of access to Steve Nash, Ron Howard, Barrack Obama, Kobe Bryant, The Guy from Entourage, and not Mark Cuban and managed to pour it all into Netflix like molten steel to be forged into a forgettable on-demand sports media entertainment product.  As the philosopher Steve Nash once narrated, you can't always get that rock up the hill.

Netflix Sports Hagiography is part of an occasional series of on-demand sports movie reviews that seem like a good idea but let's face it I probably will do like one more and then it will fall by the wayside.

No comments: