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Non-Review Review: High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird is a quietly radical movie about a sports agent.

This should not be a surprise. Director Steven Soderbergh is a director fascinated with systems, particularly capitalist systems. Unsane might have taken the form of a trashy and tacky nineties thriller, but it was primarily interested in exploring the horrors of a psychiatric industrial complex. Side Effects touched upon the way in which pharmaceutical companies and legal systems work. Contagion was a story about structural responses to a viral infection that spread rapidly through an increasingly interconnected world.

Managing the situation.

With that in mind, it makes sense that Steven Soderbergh’s movie about the NBA lockout of 2011 would feature very little actual basketball. Sure, footage of games plays on several of the large flatscreens adorning bar or office walls, but it’s just window dressing. Just when it looks like Soderbergh might actually show a game, he cuts away dramatically to a shot of a billionaire’s daughter carrying her dog on board a private jet, flanked by two helpful staff holding umbrellas to protect her from the wind. High Flying Bird is about basket ball as an institution, but not a sport.

A cynic would argue that  High Flying Bird is about basket ball in the same way that the NBA is about basket ball, interested in institutions and structures more than the actual sport itself. Such a cynic would be right at home in the world of High Flying Bird, where characters talk freely and repeatedly about the  “game that’s been played behind the game”, “the game that they made over the game”, or “a game on top of a game.” Professional basket ball is not about basket ball, High Flying Bird argues coherently and consistently. Professional basket ball is about profiting off basket ball.

“What are you doing here?”
“Beatz me.”

High Flying Bird is drawn from a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is perhaps best known for working on the story for Moonlight with Barry Jenkins. Indeed, the cast is anchored by Moonlight co-star André Holland. High Flying Bird recalls Moneyball, in that it is a film about sport that does not feature sport, understanding that the activity does not exist in a vacuum. For High Flying Bird, professional basket ball is about money and power and race, and the real game is being played away from where the camera and the audience is looking.

The only thing that keeps High Flying Bird from being a slam dunk is a lack of focus. High Flying Bird doesn’t entirely trust its cast and its premise to hold the audience’s attention through all of these conversations about abstract concepts layered upon abstract concepts placed over a game that the film only shows in the background. As a result, McCraney and Soderbergh crowd out the story with subplots designed to generate human interest; a tragic back story, an emerging romance. These elements ultimately distract from the most interesting aspects of the film.

This screenshot is also about capitalism. Somehow.

There is a sense of crisis in contemporary capitalism, rippling through popular culture. It finds expression in any number of ways; one fo the most recent (and bizarre) was the trend among recent Superbowl advertisements of arguing for capitalism as a political system as much as for the brands that they were selling. The tension is palpable. In the United States, household debt is at thirteen trillion dollars. Two fifths of Americans live only one paycheck away from poverty. House prices are rising twice as fast as pay and inflation. The wealth gap only increases.

It is a cliché to suggest that modern political crises like Brexit and Trumpism are entirely down to economics. “Economic anxiety” has become a polite word for talking about nativism and racism. However, there is some suggestion that the modern shock to the political system is rooted in a response to the financial crisis. There is a genuine sense that the system is not fair, and that at least some voters want to dismantle it without any regard for the consequences of their votes on people other than themselves.

The financial crisis echoes through popular culture. While Christopher Nolan constructed The Dark Knight as an exploration of the War on Terror, The Dark Knight Rises is a movie about the aftermath of a massive economic crash. The Other Guys and The Big Short allowed Adam McKay to pivot from the man who directed Step Brothers and Talladega Nights to directing something like Vice. Soderbergh’s own films have taken a tilt toward exploring a broken capitalist system with movies like The Girlfriend Experience or even Unsane.

High Flying Bird unfolds in 2011, the same year that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement grabbed national attention. In fact, the film’s protagonist spends a lot of time wandering around the financial district on the southern side of Manhattan. When the “World Trade Centre” site creeps into the edge of the frame with Ray, it is there not as a reminder of the horrific War on Terror, but as as a geographical marker of where this story is unfolding. Ray Burke is at home navigating these glass canyons, Soderbergh frequently framing him as dwarfed by the institutions around him.

Spencer for high flying birds.

There is a lot of glass in High Flying Bird. Meetings take place in offices with majestic views of the Manhattan skyline, with glass walls and dividers offering the illusion of transparency. Glass dividers separate officials from the public, guarding the entrance to the elevators to the top. There are lots of mirrors and lots of televisions, all intended to create the illusion of space inside these otherwise claustrophobic environments. All this glass hints at any number of things; from illusory cages to the importance of performance and pantomime when everybody is watching.

However, all of this glass also suggests the fragility of the whole system. Consulting with an old coach, Ray explains how delicate everything is. “Smallest shift in the system, everything gets f&%ked up,” he explains. Speaking of the large corporations, he argues, “They aren’t built for change. None of them.” There is a sense that all of this is a house of cards, and that the right strike in the right place at the right time might bring it all tumbling down.

High Flying Bird is about more than just capitalism. It is about race. The spectre of centuries of racial oppression looms over the game. Coach Spencer tries to avoid acknowledging this fact, something that he drilled into students like Ray. Even consciously trying to avoid the parallels, he cannot help but acknowledge them. To Spencer, the draft is “nothing but a modern day auction.” Although High Flying Bird is interspaced with talking head commentary from real life stars like Magic Johnson, the real celebrity cameo is reserved for the author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete.

All that glass takes on another meaning in this context, another way for the mostly white owners of these leagues and these teams to assert power and control over a game that was largely defined and popularised by African American stars. Spencer explains the dynamics to Ray. “They wanted control of a game that we played better,” he states. “They invented a game. On top of a game.” When the system could not beat African Americans at this particular game, they simply built a shiny glass cage around it to ensnare those young athletes.

Getting taken out to lunch.

As the characters acknowledge, the histories of race and capitalism in America are indistinguishable. Myra, the representative of the players’ association, muses that she only recently came to understand this. “I thought I was just dealing with hard-ass business men who didn’t want to give their players proportionate pay. I mean, f&%k, that’s what unions and business men have been fighting for since–“ Ray finishes her thought for her, “Slavery?”

At its core, High Flying Bird is a story about trying to fight and win a revolution where it actually matters, understanding that public spectacle is only one part of a much larger game that is being played. It is a quieter sort of revolution, a less assertive and less overt confrontation. It is understanding that what appears to be the game is seldom actually the game, and just a trap waiting to be sprung. Ray is shrewd and canny, understanding that dynamic. “Ray’s up to something, that’s usually good,” Myra explains. “Ray can see the business. Ray’s normally a few steps ahead.”

High Flying Bird really pops in these sequences, putting talented actors in rooms together and watching them bounce off one another. The dialogue and the premise is deliberately abstract, suggesting characters who are talking about so much more than they will actually say. Euphemisms abound, with smart characters often talking around one another in these delicate subtext-laiden exchanges. (Tellingly, Ray is up against “the organisation”, “the owners”, “upstairs” – all turns of phrase that suggest a criminal enterprise more than a legitimate business.)

There is even a sense of religion in all of this, of belief, of spirituality buried beneath the dollar signs. In the film’s first scene, Ray provides a player with an envelope that he states contains a bible. “A bible?” the player asks. Ray clarifies, “Not the bible, a bible.” Later, the mother of another player sings the praises of the “gospel of prosperity.” There is a sense that everything in High Flying Bird is so much more than it appears. Even that mother explains her role to Ray, “I’m the manager, agent, all.” In the world of High Flying Bird, that makes sense.

A Ray of light.

Unfortunately, there are some problems with High Flying Bird. The film is reluctant to commit to its premise of characters talking in vague terms in a variety of rooms across the length and breadth of New York City, and so awkwardly tries to add a number of elements to humanise the world and the characters who inhabit it. There is a strange romance between two secondary characters that feels contrived and under-developed. There is a lot of attention paid to Ray’s back story that offers an overly simplistic character motivation.

There is a messiness to High Flying Bird that belies its focus on systems and structures. Then again, this is very much the way in which Soderbergh works as a director. His films are obsessed with frameworks, but often unfold in wild and unpredictable directions. Sometimes, these strange choices work to the benefit of the film in question, as with Side Effects. At other points, these choices are disorienting and distracting. The frayed plot elements in High Flying Bird do not take enough time to undermine the film, but they are frustrating nevertheless.

At the same time, there is something reassuring in this mess of contradictions. It exists in the work of so many great directors; the tendency for formal impulses to exist at odds with recurring thematic occupations. It recalls the old idea that genius is nothing more than the ability to hold two seemingly contradictory thoughts in one’s head at at the same time. Soderbergh is a director fascinated with how the world is structured, but whose storytelling impulses frequently reject that idea.

Perhaps great film-making relies on a similar sort of genius. Stanley Kubrick constructed perfectly structured (and often literally symmetrical) odes to the chaotic and arbitrary whims of the universe. Christopher Nolan is an advocate for film and practical effects, for the tangible and the material, even as his films emphasise the subjective and ambiguous nature of reality. Michael Mann has ability to write (and direct) like a poet who just happens to be fixated on extensive technical details. This is not bad company to be in.

Putting all their eggs in one basket ball.

High Flying Bird is slightly flawed, but endlessly compelling. When it works – when it trusts its actors and its script to wax lyrical about the structures of professional basket ball as a metaphor for much bigger ideas – it is as bold and provocative as any revolutionary narrative. It just understands that the real game is played off the court.

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