By Matthew Sorrento.
Filmmaker David Shields found an ideal style to document the onscreen (but off the field) career of NFL running back Marshawn Lynch (2007-18). Far from a fan documentary, Lynch: A History uses collage to portray the news media’s possession and the public’s consumption of a star player unconcerned with all of the attention to him off the field. Thrown into public life due to contractual press conferences and television interviews, Lynch conceived a mode of privacy for himself even as the industry’s promotion engines continued to press him.
The film juxtaposes moments of his outstanding career with clips of press gadflies swarming Lynch and footage recounting the US’s institutional and overt racism, which moulds the machine’s and the public’s treatment of him. Shields incorporates many revealing connections, like a sequence tying this Oakland native to the city’s tradition of cultural innovation and protest. The film includes insightful clips of Oakland/Bay area natives Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Bruce Lee, Ryan Coogler, and others. One of writer/Oakland resident Philip K. Dick, commenting on the authorities’ surveillance of him (concerning protests at Cal Berkeley), is especially revealing. While bringing to mind a recurring theme for the author (see his 1956 story “The Minority Report,” his 1997 novel A Scanner Darkly), the archival footage also recalls Michael Almereyda’s 2017 doc Escapes on Hampton Fancher, screenwriter and originator of the film adaptation of Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?, i.e., Blade Runner. Like Lynch, Escapes seems to consist of scattershot clips of Fancher’s monologues (and footage to match). And yet both films set forth shrewd connections, in the best tradition of the associative mode of documentary.*
In Lynch, Shields avoids editorializing to present the man as a documentary artifact. Having used a similar approach in his fiction, the author-turned-filmmaker presents Lynch’s mode of “removing” himself from the media as an act of defiance against the NFL’s exploitation.
Shields stayed true to his approach during a recent interview, by offering brief responses to let the film speak the most.
What clips of Lynch, or stories about him, inspired you to launch this concept? Did you think of this film concept during a book project, besides Black Planet? I’m curious if a certain aspect of your writing led to this film.
It started with the non-answer answers he gave to Deion Sanders during media week before Super Bowl 48. Black Planet was published twenty years ago; I was working on the adaption of that book into a film with the actor-director James Franco, and when that project came to an end, I realized that everything he and I were trying and failing to explore in that project could more effectively be done by focusing on Marshawn Lynch.
Do you plan out your films during the writing stage, or work out associations in editing?
Some are apparent, like the Oakland residents, but others are less so. We had a film treatment, but we didn’t follow it very closely. The film has five key chapters; Oakland 1, Buffalo, Seattle 1, Seattle 2, and Oakland 2. It follows the outline of Marshawn’s life, but its organizing principle is to track the birth of Marshawn’s silence in Oakland, the deepening of it in Buffalo, the viralizing of it in Seattle, the politicizing it upon his return to Oakland, and the handing it off as legacy upon his retirement.
How hands-on of a film editor are you? How does this aspect of filmmaking reflect your work in prose?
James Nugent was the principal editor of the film. Mad props to him! I was very hands on – James and I worked on the film nonstop for many years. I’m very interested in literary collage; this was my first work of cinematic collage. I’ve been obsessed with documentary film for my whole life.
I can see you trying to cover Lynch in a book, though what would this approach lack — i.e., why did it have to be a film?
The film is a love song to Marshawn Lynch’s performative art. This would have been lost in a book, in my view.
I wonder if you were ever moved to comment on Lynch, as your do on other subjects in your book Reality Hunger, while committed to existing footage.
Last thing I wanted to do is to make an explicit comment. The whole point of collage, for me, is that the viewer makes the connections; this is what is exciting about the strategy. The connections are there, but the viewer needs to connect the dots.
How was Reality Hunger influential (if at all), and were any of your other books (outside Black Planet) influential to the film?
I think that’s right: Reality Hunger is the concept; Lynch is the proof of concept.
I’m curious as to how you find connections to figures and topics outside of Lynch. I’m especially interested in the clip of Philip K. Dick, and how this came to mind.
There is a brief section about UC Berkeley, and when we googled UC Berkeley, we found this clip of Philip K. Dick. I had a huge team of collaborators and researchers.
On the subject of Dick, have you seen the documentary Escapes (Michael Almereyda) about Blade Runner writer/producer Hampton Fancher? It’s also a collage and associative, but of his monologues.
I’m extremely interested in seeing this. It sounds amazing. The film was heavily influenced by numerous other cinematic collages.
I know your film concerns bigger issues, but do you think we need more analysis of American football? In this regard, what do you hope your film could lead to?
I hope the film leads to a discussion of how all of us can try to be as true to ourselves as Marshawn Lynch is to himself in a capitalist, racist society.
I know you’ve written about Trump recently – what moments in your film are inspired by this work, if any?
My book about Trump (Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump, Thought Catalog, 2018) is also very collage-like and is also interested in studying what happens when the discourse is deconstructed.
In your upcoming films, do you use collage again or more of your own footage?
I am working on several other films – both documentary and feature; there are collage elements, but all are more narrative than Lynch.
If you were to interview Lynch (and knew he’d answer!), what would you ask?
The entire premise of the film is that I want to respect Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to respond. Everything Lynch does is extremely purposeful and intentional.
*Like the subject of Field’s film, Fancher’s contribution to Blade Runner seems confused by accounts about it. In Paul Sammon’S Future Noir: the Making of Blade Runner (2017, 1996), Dick asserts that Fancher’s draft was full of clichéd noir dreck (Sammon, Paul M. 2017, 1996. Future Noir: the Making of Blade Runner. New York: Del Rey, 74). Though the same book reports that David Peoples, the final screenwriter on the project, firmly disagreed about Fancher’s contribution (Sammon, 77). In the tradition of the Rashomon effect, eye-witness testimonies contradict.
Matthew Sorrento is Co-Editor of Film International and teaches film studies at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. He has forthcoming book chapters on The Purge series and Bogdanovich’s Targets, the latter to appear in his collection, David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)interpretation, co-edited with David Ryan, forthcoming from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.