A Simple Twist of Fate

A Simple Twist of Fate
On Jon Bois' Section 1 (2022)

The line between a YouTube video and a film might be totally arbitrary, a distinction that will fade in time, reveal itself as drawn only in sand, but like Martin Scorsese’s distinction between theme park rides and cinema, there is a sense of meaningfully different ambitions. Most YouTube videos don’t even reach the heights of Marvel, not even empty events, loud, brief flickers of spectacle, they’re simply content. They're fuel for an algorithm’s endless hunger, another thing to scroll past in an undistinguished blur that leaves no trace; no impression or memory, just time that's evaporated into nothing. By contrast, sitting in the top corner for most of the second half of Section 1 (2022) is a POV shot, a simulated view of the airplane we know is going to crash into the Baltimore Colt’s stadium five minutes after their game with the Pittsburgh Steelers ends. Like any great Brian De Palma split screen the images interact alchemically, artistically, rather than literally—as the game crawls on we hope desperately for it to end in any way that would get the fans out in time—it creates a sense of drama and doom unparalleled in Jon Bois’ work so far; it’s easily the most cinematic thing he’s yet posted to YouTube.

It’s titled as “a short film” in lower case, as if unofficially so, which is fitting since it sits right on the line between YouTube and film, or maybe it’s moving from one to the other, pushing a line that, with enough force, will burst. While Bois' breakout series, which like Section 1 was co-written with Alex Rubenstein, The History of the Seattle Mariners (2020) was on Letterboxd’s official year in review—though placed somewhat awkwardly in the documentary mini-series category—his earlier series (without Rubenstein) Pretty Good (2015-2017) has its episodes consistently added and removed from the site. Pretty Good simply feels more like YouTube, Bois appears on camera—either narrating or drawing the graphs and charts that are still so central—though the footage is often intentionally dark and pixelated, an interest in lo-fi that carries over from it’s natural habitat of homemade videos into the digital charts he now focuses on. When we zoom into them, we see that they aren't as high resolution as he could easily make them; their pixelated blur creates an almost carpet-like texture. Even the cinematic POV shots are created through the Playstation 2 level textures of Google Earth.

The difference is also one of perspective, The Dumbest Boy Alive (2016), the sixth episode of Pretty Good, ends with Bois himself, unable to answer the silly question at its centre (which is essential, how many days are there in a week, as a body building forum argues about how to fit four non-back to back workouts into one), looking across the charts he’s stuck up all over his walls and windows. Now his disembodied voice picks seemingly random threads from across sports history and ties them beautifully and elegantly together. Section 1 is a story told from above, the stakes are set up in retrospect, we know exactly where and when the plane will crash, and how the fans could be saved from it. Bois is really testing himself because he’s not searching for the exceptional, like the arson attack that inadvertently created the Seattle Mariners, but instead for the mundane; for the fans to get out in time, the game must be boring, the Colts must lose to the Steelers in a way that’s totally devoid of interest.

Even in the most unexciting moments, on days like these that “nobody remembers”, the world is so brimming with humanity and drama, with literal life and death stakes. Bois sees sports as symbolic of life because both are such accumulations of chance, with so many threads moving and interweaving all at once it can only seem random. Captain Ahab: The Story of Dave Stieb (also 2022) is about a pitcher who was good enough to get close to the no-hitter that would secure his legacy over and over, but chance, some unbelievably bad luck, consistently stopped him from crossing over that thin and arbitrary line into greatness. By the time he finally got his no-hitter, he was less than a year away from the injury that would leave his team to win the world series without him, and ultimately end his career. That sense of absurdity was translated into nihilistic internet humour in Pretty Good, an atheistic God’s-eye-view of the follies of man, their futile little battles, but as Bois has evolved and deepened as an artist, it can be dramatic—from a low angle that sports are never shot from anymore we can see the plane flying above, it’s only a little black speck, a few pixels, but it rings with serendipity and doom—and sometimes it can even be sublime.

Now sports are shot from very uniform and disembodied high angles, showing only shapes on a field, another set on pixels that Bois tries to bring to life, or simply reveal the life that was always in them—though he's always aware of his limits, that only so much of a person can be found in their paper trails or in statistics—he does this, inutitvely, by creating even more abstract shapes. We see the game represented as a graph, each line showing how far the ball moved per play, this way you don’t have to know how the game is played—or even what the stats mean—to understand. Like in Budd Boetticher’s westerns, the shapes aren’t necessarily representative (although for Bois more than Boetticher, they usually are), they are the narrative; the graph is more the story than the game. This isn’t to give a sense of omnipotence, to bending the world into narrative, because as with the blurry textures, Bois isn't interesting in perfect clarity, he acknowledges that these hard stats are notably arbitrary, approximate measurements that have changed before and will change again. When Bois needs to define a blow-out for dramatic purposes he admits “[it] lacks a textbook definition, so we’ll make one up”; his connections are more poetic than causal because, as he says in Captain Ahab, "The universe is the true poet amongst us".

This focus on poetics and on chance doesn’t serve to negate the power of structures, especially not in Section 1, as its villain, Donald Kroner, was a former Army air controller who despite a history of psychological issues and reckless behaviour was working with the government, planning to fly undercover into South America for a drug bust. Institutions empowered him, his ego was all but state sponsored, and institutions failed to stop him; he’d told his plans to fly down onto the Colts’ stadium to innumerable people but the FAA were hardly vigilant. Black Sunday (1977), released only a few months after the crash, is brought up for all its strange synchronicities, it’s about another Veteran working secretly with handlers who struggle to control him, it even climax with an air vechicle crash during a Steelers game, the biggest difference, Bois notes, is that the character is motivated by explicit politics, he is trying to commit an act of terrorism. But I would argue that Kroner’s motivations, if not his results, were just as political, it’s just that those politics were implicit. His heroic fantasy was so deeply engrained—indulged and expanded literally by the government—that he agreed to go on these dangerous and shady missions voluntarily; totally without pay.

The other villain, though this time only by circumstance, is the Colt’s captain Bert Jones, it’s unfortunate since he publicly leveraged his star power against the bosses for the sake of his teammates, but fitting because unlike the Steelers none of his teammate were future Hall of Famers; he is the lone American hero that Kroner imagined himself to be. So much of the culture of team sports is a celebration of individuality—the Hall of Fame is nothing if not a codification of that—maybe Jones isn't so different from Kroner, he just have a good, or at least safe, container for those heroic impulses, since, as Bois makes explicit by saying “more is at stake here than in any other football game”, sports is ultimately arbitrary, it doesn’t, in the strictest sense, matter. But Bois and millions of other people find such deep personal and poetic meaning in them—an experience he shares so vividly in The History of the Seattle Mariners—that when he asks if the Steelers captain became the hero accidentally, he is re-creating that heroic image—he admits to begrudging the role that Jones found himself in—though in an inverted and unquestionably more complex way. Captain Ahab he’s does’t use Dave Stieb to argue against the idea of greatness, just that its boundaries should be expanded and enriched.

The idea that literal human lives could only be saved from systematic failure—or perhaps, success in its own terms—is a chance hero, a simple twist of fate, is a uniquely bleak and pervasive feeling. Bois is still very much in tune with internet and the way it views the world, in the face of its constantly overwhelming scale and density, it seems impossible to do anything, to draw any line between all the data and noise, creating another kind of unconscious politics: a sense of defeat that bleeds right through you. Bois’ connections aren’t always tangible or literal—they don’t exactly paint to a clear political direction—but they are still an attempt, even if he can only find beauty, that’s something. When everything lines up perfectly—when the Steelers have the highest pass rate in an away play-off game, when the Colts lose by more than one touchdown for the only times this season, and, ultimately, when their fans leave earlier than they ever have in a play-off game before or since—and somehow they are no deaths and only three injuries, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed, it’s hard not to cry like I did so many times in Seattle Mariners, because, for a moment, such a bleak world seems to rhyme; it seems to make sense.