Screwball

“A laughing matter?”

Kristen Fuhs (Woodbury University)

“A Batsh*t Tale of Steroids, Schemers and Baseball Stars,” reads the tagline for the 2018 documentary Screwball, a film about the Biogenesis scandal that placed NY Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod) front and center in Major League Baseball’s investigation into performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). The film chronicles the rise and fall of Anthony Bosch, unlicensed doctor and drug peddler to star athletes, whose doping empire was brought down by Porter Fischer, a former-client-turned-whistleblower, over the matter of a small, personal debt. The film is just one in a number of recent documentaries focused on the spread of PEDs and their impact in sport, including Marion Jones: Press Pause (John Singleton, 2010), The Armstrong Lie (Alex Gibney, 2013) and the Academy-Award-winning Icarus (Bryan Fogel, 2017). What sets Screwball apart from these films, however, is its rhetorical approach to its subject matter. Unlike the other films, which approach PEDs in sports as an unquestionably serious subject, worthy of investigation, exposure, and moral reckoning, Screwball is pitched to us as farce, replete with the improbable plots, stereotyped characters, exaggerated situations, and deliberate absurdity so characteristic of the comedic subgenre.

Described by more than one reviewer as a “madcap” tale that is “stranger-than-fiction,” the film’s farcical tone is enhanced by a particular formal choice: namely, its use of stylized reenactments wherein child actors portray each of the story’s key players. The film’s director, Billy Corben, lists the Comedy Central show Drunk History (2013—) and Spike Jonze’s video for The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s the Limit” as inspirations for the film’s stylistic approach to reenactment: children, made up to look like adults, lip-syncing dialogue as they enact the interview subjects’ recollections. On the one hand, the decision to cast children as reenactors makes literal the film’s thematic point of view – the Biogenesis scandal is ridiculous, and its key players have all behaved like children. And yet, there are more complex associative meanings produced by the reenactments in this film, which draw attention to the affective pleasures of reenactment as a formal technique, as well as the reflexive component of documentary performativity. Screwball offers up a parade of stupid criminals – fraudsters, thugs, dirty cops, cheaters, drug addicts, and corrupt corporate types – who move through the world like they’re starring in their own Scorsese movie. Casting actors to re-perform these men’s behaviors highlights the inherently performative approach the real people in question take to telling the stories of their own lives. Casting children reinforces just how much this story reads like a high-stakes game of make-believe.

Billy Corben has said that one of the reasons reenactments worked so well for visualizing this story is because both Anthony Bosch and Porter Fischer already speak like they’re reciting dialogue. So, this is the basic structure of the film: the interview subject, framed in medium close-up, recollecting their story in direct address to the screen, intercut with child actors lip-synching to this testimony. Self-conscious editing choices also draw attention to the documentary’s stylized, reflexive properties: zooms, whip pans, and smash cuts all highlight the artificiality of the film’s construction. But, at least for me, what is most compelling about this film are the kids’ performances. There is a distinct pleasure that comes from seeing these kids with five o’clock shadows, fake tans, bad wigs, and roided-out muscles. They are masters at embodying – and at the same time mocking – the adults’ behavior. Take for example, the scene where Bosch (Bryan Blanco) draws a vial of A-Rod’s (Blake McCall) blood in a nightclub bathroom, and then proceeds to subsequently lose it on the dancefloor. The film cuts from furtive skulking in a low-lit bathroom to alcohol-fueled gyrations on the dance floor. Then, the dawning, confused realization – written all over Blanco’s face – that he’s lost the vial leads to he and A-Rod crawling around the floor searching while the party rages behind them. From the clubbing clothes to the slicked back hair to the cocktails and the roped off VIP section – the details in this scene make a mockery of A-list celebrity lifestyle and the sense of invincibility that often comes with it. In fact, it’s easy to imagine the next scene might be one in which Bosch face-plants into a heaping mound of cocaine – à la Tony Montana – while trying to maintain a tenuous hold on his unravelling scheme. Criminal masterminds these men are not, and it’s clearly only a matter of time before this all comes to an ignominious end.

The reenactments in Screwball do more than just substitute for non-existent footage – they evoke a fantastical universe that is fueled by the fanciful imaginations of the film’s subjects. At the same time, they offer a reflexive critique of the highly-constructed nature of this storytelling. I will acknowledge that sometimes the farcical tone of this film makes it difficult to take the story seriously – the levity undercutting the real harms associated with PED use, cheating in professional sports, and MLB’s absolute bungling of this issue. But, then once again, the children are used to great effect in the film to clarify the associated stakes of the scandal: what message is baseball’s inability (unwillingness?) to get its house in order sending our youth? The final scene of the film opens with Bosch (Blanco), staring in direct address to the camera, as he removes his wig. No longer Bosch, Blanco turns away and runs onto the baseball diamond behind him, where all of the other child actors are waiting to play a pickup game. They run, they hit, they cheer – they’re just kids having fun with the sport. As such, the kids don’t just add a layer of farcical absurdity to this story – they are here to remind us why this story matters. The Biogenesis scandal isn’t just a story about stupid criminals, celebrity athletes, and multi-billion-dollar organizations behaving badly. It’s a story that forces us to think about the role sports plays in our society, the signifying values professional baseball holds up as important, and the legacies we leave for the next generation.

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“The Paradoxical Absurdity of Sports Scandals”

Jason Kido Lopez (University of Wisconsin)

A professional tanner, a fake doctor (or is it ‘unlicensed’?), a commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB), and a millionaire baseball player all get skewered in 2018’s Screwball. Directed by Billy Corben, the documentary uses interviews and reenactments to tell the story of a recent MLB performance enhancing drug (PED) scandal involving star players, with a special focus on Alex Rodriguez. Though the media focused mainly on the players at the time, Screwball also explores the roles of other individuals: Bud Selig (MLB commissioner), Rob Manfred (MLB’s Chief of Operations), Tony Bosch (the prescriber of the PEDs), Porter Fischer (a tanning enthusiast entangled in the plot), and a host of other individuals responsible for abetting or investigating the scandal.

Strikingly, the documentary uses child actors to portray the events recollected by those interviewed. The interviews supply the dialogue to which the young actors lip-synch during the reenactments. Throughout the film, the children mime giving doping advice, dancing at a strip club, being interviewed on the radio, drinking Kool-Aid and vodka, tanning, and extorting and bribing each other. The juxtaposition between the youth of the actors and wide range of adult activity, from professional and quotidian to criminal and ridiculous, makes the actions of the subjects appear childish: naïve, short-sighted, selfish, and petty.

This is epitomized towards the end of the movie in a sequence depicting an arbitration meeting in which MLB heard testimony from Tony Bosch claiming that he supplied Alex Rodriguez with PEDs. The scene for the meeting is set with interviews stating that Bosch threw a cocaine-fueled party with the money MLB paid him for his testimony and, as the baseball organ music segues into a circus theme, claiming that Rodriguez recruited people to protest his hearing with promises of pizza. As the narrative moves from the street to the meeting room, the images from news coverage of the ‘pro-Rodriguez activism’ transition to a recreation of the arbitration using the child actors. The depiction of the meeting starts with Bosch’s incredulity at his lawyer’s suggestion that he tell the truth as a legal strategy, and it ends with everyone in the room—the lawyers, the arbitrator, Rob Manfred—watching Rodriguez make childish faces at Bosch, scream and yell, and eventually storm out. His behavior seems immature even for the young actor portraying him.

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Sequences like this are common in the film and paint an unfavorable, yet humorous, picture of nearly everyone involved in the scandal. Alex Rodriguez is a narcissistic liar and cheater. Tony Bosch is an amoral huckster. Rob Manfred is an inept and overreaching empty suit. Porter Fischer is a sad dupe.

One might marvel at the odds of so many peculiar people being involved in one scandal, but their behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Indeed, everyone in the film is connected to MLB in some way and therefore the league serves as the backdrop for their actions. There are wider institutional reasons that contextualize, without excusing, their admittedly comical deeds. Screwball offers the opportunity to see how institutional pressures on individuals create an environment in which people will act in curious ways. This allows us to go beyond mocking the actions done by individuals in the past, and instead think critically about structures still in place in MLB.

First, all of the individuals portrayed are connected to MLB’s entertainment product. As the movie mentions, homeruns are good for business, and the earlier homerun record chasing done by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa saved MLB. The benefits are distributed widely. Because the league values homeruns, the players who hit them, like Alex Rodriguez, become highly compensated. And, if there is pressure on him to hit homeruns, then there is incentive on him and those invested in him to make sure he does so. This is where Tony Bosch and his Biogenesis ‘health and anti-aging’ company get enlisted in MLB’s pursuit for homerun-driven entertainment.

However, MLB also wants its entertaining product to seem fair. Because there has been a perception that some players have been enhancing their performance with drugs, MLB instantiated policies that define, surveil, and punish PED use. Though the substances that count as PEDs have many uses and though their use doesn’t guarantee any particular competitive result, previous prominent cases give conspicuous anecdotal evidence that PED use can increase power hitting and homeruns. The pressures for entertainment and (perceived) fairness pull the league in opposite directions. The pursuit of entertainment would be helped by PED use and the pursuit of perceived fairness is hindered by it. This is the self-induced double-bind of MLB.

When faced with a paradoxical system like this, is it any surprise that individuals will act in absurd ways? Selig and Manfred look the other way as the rules they established, and are supposed to enforce, are violated. Alex Rodriguez’s PED taking undermines the financial and social benefits gained from their use. Tony Bosch is connected to the prestige of MLB but can’t publicly acknowledge it.

These individuals chose one pressure (the entertainment of homeruns) over the other (the appearance of fairness), and they look ridiculous doing it. However, the league’s contradictory pressures put everyone in an absurd position. In a system that encourages PED use, it seems foolish not to use them to one’s own benefit and give MLB the high-performing players it is designed to reward.

Screwball captures the absurdity of being involved in a system that simultaneously encourages and discourages the use of PEDs. That’s not to excuse anyone’s behavior; every individual responded to the paradoxical pressures in their own way. And, furthermore, many did so in an odd or unethical way. However, these actions happened in an institutional context that place the people involved in a no-win scenario. It makes sense, therefore, that individuals within and around this paradoxical system will look like screwballs.

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