This Monday night was the pre-season premiere of Stranger Than Fiction at the IFC Center and they started out with a bang. Barbara Kopple's latest creation, House of Steinbrenner, a surprisingly emotional documentary not just about Mr. Steinbrenner and his empire but about the tradition of baseball as a family and community that spans generations. House of Steinbrenner is part of the ESPN Film series 30 For 30. Host Thom Powers moderated a post screening panel of heavy weights at the IFC Center, that included director, Barbara Kopple, editors Bob Eisenhardt and Tom Haneke (I've seen them at EditFest New York before and they're both great speakers and funny too) as well as the film's producers.
The panel discussion was interesting and it reflected some of what I was curious about. House of Steinbrenner focused on the fans, and as one reviewer noted, "the father-and-son mythology around baseball". The film does work that way and I felt quite emotional (although I was running on fumes so that did contribute) in many scenes with tearful fans and long time Yankee's employees candidly expressing what the stadium and George Steinbrenner mean to them. What does rear it's ugly head just a little however, is lack of access, which is such a tough obstacle to overcome.
Ms. Kopple did get an interview with Hal Steinbrenner and she made the most of both peculiarities and insightful moments that emerged, but all in all, she doesn't really get us inside the Steinbrenner empire. That isn't to say that House of Steinbrenner isn't an experience I wouldn't recommend. During the panel talks Ms. Kopple admitted to her hopes for flying with Hal, going to the Steinbrenner home and more, but those passes weren't granted.
I might sound a little critical of House of Steinbrenner by mentioning the feeling of inaccessibility, but even so, it's not like I'm going to claim I could do any better. Part of what makes Barbara Kopple a terrific filmmaker is her ability to adapt to circumstances and find the human and compelling story in what she is dealt and that is a dying stadium with enormous history of every day people, their families and American heros. Then of course it's rebirth at the new Yankee Stadium. She does a great job showing what mixed emotions change evokes in people. Over the new stadium and over the death of Mr. Steinbrenner earlier this summer. As we all know some love the stadium and some hate it. Some thought George Steinbrenner was amazing, others not so much (did you see that plaque they just unveiled?).
What I admire about Barbara Kopple (besides her obvious filmmaking talents) is her honesty about both the challenges and successes in this piece. She confessed it was what it was, and worked with it. She also talked about the process of discovering what the new story was as they started filming the fans. I am not a sports buff (besides boxing) but I was invested in this story. It speaks to everyone because it's about generations, traditions and being part of something. The editors did a terrific job with showing the complexity of emotion that goes with being a Yankees fan, whether it's a son working to take down the historic ball park his father help build or the procession of employees transferring the many decades of award from an old case to the new. They also juxtaposed exuberance with criticism very well.
I can't think of a better way to kick-off this fall's Stranger Than Fiction than to have the likes of a Barbara Kopple in attendance. Monday night was without a doubt, The House of Kopple. I look forward to enjoying the next screening, Marwencol. It looks wild. Tuesday, September 28th at 8p.