No No: A Dockumentary Dir. Jeff Radice

[The Orchard; 2014]

Styles: documentary
Others: 30 for 30

It’s been said many times before, so I won’t go all-out-Ken-Burns, but baseball is the sport closest tied to American history and its experiences. That one can join a crowd of tens of thousands of people enjoying a game that was being played with the same rules, insignia, and pageantry not ten years removed from the Civil War is an odd and astonishing feeling. As such, many famous moments mirror and even precede notable shifts in U.S. culture. The Black Sox scandal foretold the growing corruption and cynicism of the next decade. Jackie Robinson threw an extra spotlight onto the civil rights movement. And Dock Ellis, Jeff Radice’s film No No: A Dockumentary reasons, encapsulated the drug use, racial frustrations, and changes in values of 1970s America.

Ellis is today most famous for his 1970 no-hitter, during which he was allegedly under the influence of LSD, a story that recently experienced a surge in popularity due to the awesome animated short by James Blagden from a few years ago. For those without a robust knowledge of professional baseball (all you poindexters who came here for the Baudrillard references), when a pitcher manages to go an entire game without surrendering a single hit to opposing batters, it’s a no-hitter. They only happen once in a blue moon, and it’s one of the crowning achievements of the sport. The idea that a man could take the field high on a psychedelic hallucinogenic drug and conquer one of the most difficult physical and mental challenges in the world is understandably mind-boggling. Whether or not you believe the story (I won’t be a buzz-kill here, but if you do a little digging you will probably reach the same conclusion I have…), it marks a bizarre intersection between 60s and 70s counterculture, and a sports world that has often served as the foil of anything subversive or transgressive. For the past half-century, what happens in professional athletics has also been happening in mass media, and what’s happening in mass media potentially affects us all. So, what better stage on which for Dock Ellis to assert himself?

In No No, you meet the person behind the loopy anecdote, and come to find that the incident was actually one of the lowest points of his life. Though Ellis was a proud and outspoken proponent of black rights and individual freedom, he was constantly at war with substance abuse problems that threatened to completely undo him. Another lesser-known piece of his lore involves him deliberately beaning the first five batters in the Cincinnati Reds (one of the best teams of the era) lineup in 1974 before being taken out of the game. A great half in the bag bar story no doubt, but we later a see retired Ellis in an apologetic interview for a news segment. Everyone loses control of their pitches sometimes; it happens, says the reporter. “But I meant to hit them,” replies Dock, fiercely honest and with pained, penitent eyes that pierce rather than well up. With the power to challenge life and carve your own path and rules comes the burden of wresting your strong will and controlling your intensity. The same person who single handedly goaded the MLB into starting two black pitchers opposite one another in the All Star Game for the first time ever also pushed his wife so far that she feared for her life and packed her bags.

It’s strange to feel the 70s slipping far enough away to be considered distant history (Dock’s career is as removed from modern day as Babe Ruth’s was from Dock’s) and No No: A Dockumentary is likely one of many pieces to come that will mythologize its figures and enter them into the pantheon of strange tales and amazing feats that make baseball so rich. A personality so large and a life so interesting and eventful that it seems odd it’s taken this long for a feature to be created from it, Radice’s film is engaging, and affecting, and it provides a valuable dock-ument of an extraordinary presence.

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