Soderbergh: High Flying Bird (2019)
High Flying Bird is the latest in a brilliant string of post-cinematic releases from Steven Soderbergh. Anchored in the same broad visual field of Behind the Candelabra, The Knick, Logan Lucky and Unsane, the evocative and elliptical script is written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and takes us through the last twenty-four hours of an NBA lockout. At the heart of it is Ray Burke, played by Andre Holland, who is trying to get the best possible deal for his client, Erick Scott, an up-and-coming basketballer played by Melvin Gregg. Punctuated by a series of interviews with real NBA players, the film follows Ray and Erick as they meet with representatives of the NBA, the Players’ Association and third party media entities, trying to negotiate their place within the lockout, and put a productive end to it if possible. For that reason, there’s not that much basketball within High Flying Bird, which is to basketball what Moneyball was to baseball – a study of the metrics that drive the game, along with the industrial entities that are invested in controlling those metrics and the narratives around them. The result is possibly the tightest film that Soderbergh has shot since “returning” to cinema, so economical in its vision of the various economies that drive basketball that it feels like a manifestation of the world that it is articulating more than a mere depiction of it.
In part, that’s because this is Soderbergh’s second successive film to be shot on an iPhone. Yet while Soderbergh may be new to iPhone cinema, it really feels as if this has been his ideal platform for years, given the number of his films that draw on our experience of digital media as both embodied and disembodied, indifferent and intimate, at the same time. While the use of the iPhone is less expressionistic and flamboyant here than in Unsane, it arguably creates an even more uncanny and unsettling world, one that always approaches the real world we know, or think we know, but never quite inhabits it for any length of time. In the opening scenes, that’s especially clear during interactions between characters, since the slight curvature around the edges of the iPhone screen, and its comparative lack of depth, means that it’s not really convincing as a vehicle for classical editing techniques. Unable to ever quite naturalise the point of contact between individuals, Soderbergh’s iPhone makes every conversation feel like a negotiation, suffusing his mise-en-scenes with the precarity of the lockout before basketball has even been raised as a topic of discussion. Given that the characters all communicate primarily through their iPhones, there’s also a real sense of spatial and temporal redundancy to filming their communications with an iPhone, which surrounds all of their conversations with an atonal and disjunctive blankness.
That situation also extends to the relation between the characters and the broader world. Since these characters mediate the broader world through their iPhones, there’s something inherently impotent about try to film that mediation through an iPhone. As a result, a great deal of the film plays out in the spatial and temporal voids left by the convergence of all human experience through the iPhone screen, as Soderbergh finds himself as unable to naturalise the point of contact between individuals and the broader world, as between individuals themselves. Much of the film seems to play out in a strange and distended space between close-ups and long shots, since close-ups never quite sequester characters from the world around them, but long shots are too flattened and denuded of depth to evoke that world either. At times, Soderbergh is able to craft images that are less iPhoney, and more cinematic, but he tends to follow these with images that are especially iPhoney, and that don’t really work cinematically, imbuing the iPhone with a documentary power that means that nothing filmed on his iPhone can ever quite sequester itself from the world as fiction, or as cinema. While the spaces and situations in the films are all fictional, the iPhone, in Soderbergh’s hands, testifies too emphatically to its own conditions of reality to permit us to pretend that a more cinematic version of reality is tenable or realistic anymore.
Within this post-cinematic space, there’s also a very stark distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic sound – and a failure of the two to ever quite converge or combine. While diegetic sound always feels a bit intrusive here (especially the title song), non-diegetic sound never quite immerses you in the scene, converging music and sound on noise, and then converging noise on spaces where ambient noise is intensified – taxis, elevators, bars, lobbies – all of which happen to be spaces of mass transit, or transitory spaces, as well. With every single space shot through with a modicum of white noise, the iPhone never feels comfortable or domesticated in any space, partly because the whole premise of the iPhone is to provide a substitute for domestic space, and a guarantor of domestic proximity that can trump the contingencies of any physical space. What ensues within the physical spaces of the film might be called white space, a diffuse spatial field that Soderbergh anchors in the glass and steel structures round Four World Trade Center, where most of the action occurs.
That precarious visual and sonic field throws the dialogue of the film into uncanny relief in turn. Time and again, Ray doubles back on conversation, clipping other people off pre-emptively, or stopping to regulate and revise what he has just said, as well as pre-empting and forestall anything foolish he might say. To a certain extent, this hyper-aware language speaks to the situation of a lockout, and accompanying negotiations, but within the script it tends to be most pronounced around the ways in which identity politics plays out through language. Gradually, these two preoccupations become one, as the language of identity politics, and the language of collective bargaining, imbue the spoken word with an almost unbearable ideological weight, as Ray gradually realises – or realises anew – that he not just representing his players, but collectively bargaining with the white owners of the NBA to change what black masculinity means, and the stories that can be told about it in America.
This unusual approach to space, sound and dialogue all combine to heighten the horizontality of our field of vision. Most images in the film are circumscribed by eye level and hand level, evoking a world where most of our sensory experience is channelled into the small space between our eyes and the phone in our hands. The point is made succinctly in an opening montage sequence that follows Ray through a series of iconic New York spaces. In a regular film, this would help to expand the space and atmosphere of the film, but the wider Soderbergh’s shots become, the more they leach his images of any regular sense of depth, gradually subsuming regular spatiality into the iPhone conversations that Ray is having throughout this entire montage sequence. In effect, we are only permitted to register these images as he would while on his iPhone, in a state of half-distraction, and limited visual cognition. To “watch” these images is a bit like being myopic and hypermetropic at the same time, as Soderbergh evokes an industrial situation in which characters have to think a long way ahead, but also focus intensively on the present moment, dismantling the middle distance as a point of both spatial and cognitive reference.
That heightened horizontality is especially disorienting in a basketball film, since basketball films are usually driven by verticality. Moreover, they usually associate verticality with upwards mobility, replaced here with a kind of sidewards mobility in which Ray is perpetually trying to broker a line of flight that allows him to escape the strict hierarchical logic of the NBA representatives he encounters. For the first part of the film, we only see basketball courts and games on televisions and laptops in corporate offices, muted and subsumed into the steely architecture and palette of the film. When we do actually get close to a court, the extreme long shots seem to relegate the court to the far background, erecting a preternatural stillness in the foreground that prevents the camera from connecting with the players in the visceral manner of earlier basketball films. As a result, it feels as if a precarious, transitory, anonymous space has been set up between the audience and the court – or as if the court itself is one of these spaces, now fully aligned with the corporate offices where the fates of the players are decided. The only really intimate and crucial conversation on a court is shot from a distance, and sees two characters revolving around the court, but too slowly to ever quite sync into the rhythm and momentum of the players they are discussing. Only when they leave the court, and return to off-court negotiations, does Soderbergh return to the low-angle shots typical of the basketball genre.
All of those stylistic features, and all of those uses of the iPhone, combine to create an off-realism that serves the film in two distinct ways, and that has two distinct qualities. First, this realism is sometimes “less” real than regular cinematic realism, as evinced in McCraney’s dialogue, which is palpably and plastically theatrical in its diction and address. However, this realism also feels “more” real than regular cinematic realism, especially in the density of discussions and negotiations (I had to look up a plot synopsis to follow the action), as well as the representation of people who are involved with the NBA, who represent a much broader cross-section than the alpha males that normally sell stories. Not are the players in the documentary interludes down-to-earth and reflective, but it emerges, tacitly, that Ray himself is queer, as is one of the main women he negotiates with, played by Sonja Sohn. Between those two extremes, cinematic realism is displaced from its role of anchoring reality, meaning that the few consciously cinematic flourishes that Soderbergh uses mostly work against themselves, such as the tracking-shots that actually flatten space.
By dislocating the film from cinematic realism, Soderbergh uncannily captures how much of our sense of reality still comes from cinema. Moreover, he suggests that an accurate depiction of black America, and an accurate depiction of industrial relations, both require this off-realism, just because white corporate America has so decisively conquered what cinema and realism entails. While black America may not be Soderbergh’s own story, there is an authenticity to the film, given his own retirement from the corporate film industry, of which the film is itself a symptom and manifestation. At the same time, Soderbergh is also telling a bigger story, trying to dissociate basketball from NBA, and the reality of basketball from how it is presented by the NBA. Within American culture, the NBA presents itself as the apex of black masculinity, giving it a prime position to define what the reality of black masculinity entails. Throughout High Flying Bird, McCraney and Soderbergh suggest that it serves the NBA’s interests to centre the reality of black masculinity on machismo, swagger, showmanship and toxicity, at the expense of the other experiences that make up black men in America, or that preclude black men in America being gathered under a single aegis of masculinity. In fact, the film suggests, this vision of potent blackness largely serves white interests, by containing the diversity of what black masculinity can achieve, and turning it into a spectacle and aspiration for white men otherwise cowed by black rights and activism.
High Flying Bird is therefore an off-realist project in the same way that Black Lives Matter is an off-realist project, not only presenting identity politics and industrial action as inextricable, but presenting this inextricability as the key to further black activism. By failing to naturalise the point of contact between individuals, other individuals, and their world, Soderbergh’s iPhone ultimately fails to naturalise the point of contact between the aspirations of black men and the way those aspirations are framed by white corporate interests. In other words, it fails to naturalise the NBA as a point of mediation between black men and what white men think of black men, partly because the NBA is still primarily a televisual entity, and so doesn’t quite ramify within the address and ambit of Soderbergh’s iPhone. No surprise, then, that one of Ray’s solutions to the lockout is to try and secure his players deals with alternative, non-televisual platforms in order to force the NBA’s hand. After a contest between Erick and a competing co-signer goes viral, Ray sets up meetings with Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, or at least says he has set up meetings to undercut the NBA’s televisual confidence. While this strategy ends up resolving the lockout, and restoring the NBA as the main point of mediation between basketball and the public, it does suggest an intriguing alternative future, in which players live stream matches that they set up themselves, rather than being beholden to the corporate mission of sporting organisations.
The fact that High Flying Bird has been released exclusively on Netflix adds to this sense of the necessity for black activists to find lines of flight from those media that have defined what their reality can be, along with the industrial conditions that give those media such power. While Soderbergh obviously can’t dismantle the NBA, he does dissociate the NBA from basketball pretty effectively over the course of the film. Gradually converging the white space of his iPhone address with the corporate demands of the NBA, he provides a series of familiar NBA tropes and slogans, but surrounds them with great swathes of blank space and time, or space and time that is largely indifferent to them, except as a source of monetization and profit. Even the most charismatic moments of swagger and machismo are subsumed into this corporate imperative, to the point where adopting this swagger and machismo starts to feel like an industrial necessity for players. The point is made succinctly by the documentary interludes, which present basketballers in a very different light from how we typically see them in American media – as sensitive, reflective, thoughtful and resistant to toxic masculinity. No doubt, many basketball documentaries also tread this line, and yet what makes Soderbergh’s so different is how dramatically he resists not only the regular narratives spun around basketball but the media platforms that ensure them power and hegemony. In fact, Soderbergh suggests, setting out to make a film or television series about the NBA is simply to affirm the NBA, so emphatically has the NBA set the limits to black realism on cinema or television, necessitating an entirely alternative medium instead.
That new medium isn’t merely suggested by Soderbergh’s use of an iPhone, but the role that iPhones play within High Flying Bird. The only time when the verticality of the court is restored, and the action resembles a typical basketball film, is when Erick and his rival have an impromptu stand-off on a local court, and a teenager captures one of the slam dunks on their iPhone. The one truly vertical image in the film also becomes the most viral image, as McCraney and Soderbergh glimpse a media ecology that bypasses the industrial strangleholds that allow white corporate American to determine the reality of black America. Like the fragments of gospel language the percolate throughout the narrative, this vertical image, and the slam dunk itself, feels like a rupture in the reality that the film presents, and is one of the factors that makes High Flying Bird off-real, unwilling to commit too strong to regular realistic immersion for fear of that realism already being controlled and compromised. By the time we arrive at the end of the film, that rupture has become more overt, just as the corporate realism of Ray’s world has also become more pronounced, resulting in the lockout resolving, and the steel-and-glass hush of Four World Trade Centre bleaching and parching every space in its way, suffusing everything with cold, efficient light.
In the moments just after Erick has signed his deal, his partner and unofficial manager Sam played by Zazie Beetz, dips into Harry Edwards’ The Revolt of the Black Athlete, while Erick takes off his shirt and flexes in the bathroom. Once upon a time, that machismo, and that spectacle of the macho black body, would have been a pivotal moment in a basketball film, but it’s displaced here by Sam’s insistence, to Erick, that “you need to read this,” at which point the screen abruptly cuts to black and Richie Havens’ cover of “High Flyin’ Bird” plays over the closing credits. The film’s final gesture in rupturing the reality field of the NBA is to thus cut away from it, and affirm the power of black discourse over fictional representation, a transition that feels peculiarly compelling on an iPhone, just because so many people are likely to watch High Flying Bird on their iPhones. Treating the iPhone itself as an incitement to discourse, McCraney and Soderbergh enjoin the viewer to google Edwards’ book immediately, and take it from there, rather than allow themselves to repose too long within the reality of the film itself, just because no single or stable vision of reality is now uncompromised for black folk. For that reason, High Flying Bird is easily the most transitory of Soderbergh’s late works – it seems to pass quicker, and recede into the distance faster – but also the most pregnant point of departure, and the closest to the action it advocates.
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