"The Raw Material of History": Jon Bois in the Age of Everything

Collaging statistics, muzak, and Google Earth, Jon Bois's sports documentaries sketch alternative models of history—and moving-image art.
Frank Falisi

Captain Ahab

Captain Ahab: The Story of Dave Stieb (Jon Bois, 2022).

Some old classification anxieties up front: what is cinema? Is it just a cultural object that moves twice, first in narrative operation and then (actually, concurrently) as technology, a montage of the photographic or pixelated? Is it the truth at 24 frames/franchises per second, or is there a cinematic something that differentiates “film” from its cousin, “new media”? And (how) does that matter anyway? 

Maybe the idea of “film” is related to what’s loggable on Letterboxd: movies, sure, but also some TV shows (HBO’s Watchmen, but none of The Sopranos). No to music videos, yes to (some) porn. Yes to lots of Taylor Swift live shows; John Berger’s 1972 series of video essays, Ways of Seeing; and the boring-delirious, 28-minute film made for closed-circuit Vegas televisions, Caesar’s Guide to Gaming With Orson Welles. Sporting events aren't included, but there are sports documentaries and documentations, lots of sports “content”—like something called Foo Fighters-Super Bowl LVI Aftershow in Virtual Reality—and there are some, but not all, of the moving-image projects of Jon Bois.

Social media websites alone don’t challenge formal understandings: André Bazin’s old magazine Cahiers du Cinéma stirred that vat when it voted David Lynch’s serialized, televised Twin Peaks: The Return the Best Film of the Decade. And if “moving image” seems a simultaneously elegant and cowardly linguistic maneuver, the flippancy of invoking Letterboxd as a litmus test at least emerges from a desire to render anxiety as possibility, to cartograph alternatives to Sight and Sound lists and democratize access. If cinema does exist and can be gestured toward, it must be the thing that materializes history, makes memory artifactual. Cinema, then, must pass through Jon Bois.

Bois has written and directed two videos so far in 2022, the 228-minute Captain Ahab: The Story of Dave Stieb, a multi-part investigation into the career of a Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, and the 42-minute Section 1, an account of the 1976 airplane crash (attack?) at Baltimore’s Memorial Field. Both videos are viewable for free (insomuch as ad-supported conglomerates can be “free”) via SB Nation’s Secret Base channel; SB Nation is the Vox-owned sports blogging conglomerate where Bois works, first as an editor and now as Creative Director. After co-creating the long-form Fighting in the Age of Loneliness with Felix Biederman in 2018, Bois has mostly collaborated with fellow SB Nation writer Alex Rubenstein, who has co-written, produced, and added narration to several such “Jon Bois things.” 

What are “Jon Bois things”? Sports documentaries ostensibly, of varying runtimes and subjects. Though they feature archival footage—snippets of televised interviews, in-game videotapes, all previously broadcast somewhere at some point in history—the bulk of their runtime is populated by graphs and grids and charts and lines and squiggles that all stand for the statistics of sporting events: the rhythmic back-and-forth of progress down a football field of yards, the rise and fall of a win-loss record, the dot of one human’s Earned Run Average offset against a sea of his contemporaries in the '80s. Bois corrals and animates these stats via a pirated Google Earth function, adds some light canned jazz/new-age tunes neither entirely earnest nor at all ironic, and atop that, layers narration, usually his and Rubenstein’s. Occasionally archival audio creeps through. “We build the visuals while we write, so it’s kind of a hand-in-hand thing,” Bois said of their creative process in a recent interview for FanGraphs Audio.

Part visualization, part vocal monologue, a “Jon Bois thing” approaches fundamental questions of form and content such that neither is entirely separable from the other. Namely: to sketch alternative models of history—ones that don’t rise and fall under the influence of capital and surveillance, that aren’t in thrall to rabid individualism and braindead corporatism—the eye must first see them, and then render them. By constructing a cinematography of statistics, Bois supplants the obvious point—that abstract figures stand for real moments in real lives—and interrogates the limitations of “telling history” itself.

The History of the Seattle Mariners (Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein, 2020).

In 2020’s The History of the Seattle Mariners, Bois's digitally liberated camera-eye moves across the graphs and grids both in and out of time while also positioning itself as unbound by historical tradition, or rather, the traditionally historic. Two hours and 46 minutes into the film, the camera pulls back to reveal the entirety of “the grid,” a massive calendar object (read: a world) that accounts for every year the Seattle Mariners have existed, a square of squares that comes to be littered with every version of statistical baseball ephemera imaginable. The spectator has experienced nearly three hours of struggle told through ephemera, has seen individual achievement and laudable storyline fall by the wayside. 

“Alex and I have spent months dwelling on the Mariners, what they mean, what they’re for, how to appreciate them, the ultimate irrelevance of on-field success,” Bois says in voice-over, the camera zooming in slowly from the dark nothing surrounding this grid-world. “The importance of celebrating a team for what it is, not for what it could be. And then I watch this,” and the camera cuts from the world of numerals to that of humans, to footage of Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki being hoisted on their teammates’ shoulders at the end of another lost season. But the action moves at half-speed, maybe a quarter—the joy that emerges outside of traditional historical metrics as well as “real time” and receives its extra moment here, rendered in stark cinematographic minimalism. “This is Whoville,” Bois says. “They’re celebrating one another. They’re celebrating themselves.” At this point, the image freezes, Griffey’s hand and cap held aloft, the maneuvered footage an anonymous cameraperson caught for a local network commercial becoming a still image. It becomes purely photographic: it contains meanings beyond the hand and the cap and but also, somehow, it means the hand and the cap and the particular joy.

“We never look at just one thing,” Berger observes in Ways of Seeing. “We are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” Mariners presents an alternative theory of history, one that liberates the human experience from the dead currency of success, but the film also depicts the very animation of the alternative theory. As Bois manipulates the archival footage and data, the spectator simultaneously sees history in the making and new possibilities for recording and remembering that history. Previously understood matter (footage, stats, results) is subjected to cinematographic manipulation. The spectator sees both the human action and the new possibility of recording and remembering that history. “Cinema is made from the same raw material as History,” Jean-Luc Godard wrote in his 2005 collaboration with Youssef Ishaghpour, Cinema: The Archaeology of Film and the Memory of a Century. “In relation to History, the most trivial clinch or pistol shot in cinema is more metaphorical than anything literary. Its raw material is metaphorical in itself. Its reality is already metaphorical.” Cinema’s inherent is/isn’t-ness—not just Junior’s hand and cap, but also the unsaid feeling they convey, but simultaneously also just hand and cap—liberates cinema from the constrictive angles of history.

It’s not merely that Bois is able to accomplish these articulations with only the metaphor-izing sway of hotwired GPS and plenty of time spent trawling baseball-reference.com. It’s also that these cinematic strategies are the only ways to render these specific observations and insights. Minimalist approaches to documentary filmmaking are in no short supply in a post-Ken Burns world, but few operate in a mode that builds on their subject: Captain Ahab: The Story of Dave Stieb riffs on Mariners’s alternative models of accomplishment, but also occupies itself with how historical memory is constructed in the first place. Fittingly, Bois introduces a z-axis to his architectures, allowing towers of data—and so, their tactile impression—to transcend lateral motion on the grid and to literally approach the spectator.

The computer-ness of these films—their vaporwave-style horizons and glitchy, unsettled rendering—ushers them away from our historical understanding of televised sports as “that which has happened” and rephrases their occurrence as something animated; that which might, with the physics-breaking freedom of computer processing, be just as gummy as Crash Bandicoot or Rayman. It’s telling that Bois first gained attention for Breaking Madden (2013-15), a series where he would deliberately make “wrong” choices and computations in the Xbox 360 game. He immediately dismissed all players from a team and redrafted every player with the surname “Johnson.” Using the create-a-player function, Bois made BEEFTANK, a beautiful ham hero who Bois regards as nearly digitally Grecian in his ontology: “He is indestructible. Trying to injure BEEFTANK is like trying to puncture a cinder block. He runs like the roundest of freight trains. He is like Pac-Man, only his maze is of the existential sort that funnels him through the cockles of football's pure heart. He can frequently bowl over multiple defenders in a single run. He can also throw very, very far, a skill that does not fit into his game at all.” Breaking Madden is part sleepover dare and all stupid. In “wronging” the game—and in calling attention to himself as a player-author of that wronging via occasional shots of his hand and video game controller—Bois suggests that video games present new avenues of access to potential makers. Any occasion to become the player-avatar becomes an occasion to create new images.

History likes to be perceived a certain way—maybe the banality of “documentary” is when it depicts “what happened” as opposed to “what could be.” Televised sports are nearly definitionally “what happened”: they typically appear as spectacle, a wild collation of storyline, product placement, and public relations. In 2022, such an entity is as good as any to qualify as resultant mythologies. Televised footage of sports (that belongs to the collective, if not cinematic, memory) has always been accessible: it is, after all, the profitable fruit of the spectacle’s vine. In a mise-en-scène of statistics, though, the un-quantifiable emerges: sports become the forum for discussing structural elements that enforce not only history, but mythology too. 

This isn’t easy to pull off. Ethan Hawke’s recent documentary series The Last Movie Stars—which baldly proclaims itself to be “A Film By Ethan Hawke”—seeks to resurrect two acting icons’ pasts (and historicize humanity) in a similar way: it uses transcripts of interviews about and with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as its backbone. But Hawke puts the performances of these interviews in the mouths of fellow celebrities, every voice a reminder of fame, of visibility. Even the film’s interviews—conducted virtually, Hawke and his collaborators confined to Zoom screens—frequently cut back to the director, smiling warmly or nodding sagely, always with the intention of being seen.

Sometimes this intention is called “celebrity,” a notion that isn’t necessarily antithetical to re-seeing history but one that is a historically celebrated (and historically well-compensated) metric of success. Celebrity focuses attention towards achievement, quantifiable successes that we might find one the back matter of a baseball card. Home runs (here narrated by George Clooney!) and RBIs (Laura Linney!) and pitching wins (D'Onofrio’s gonna explain the method!) are aspects of a statistical history, but they don’t tell the whole story. The Bois project, broadly, is to remove the shine from narratives thought to be inevitable by plainly scrutinizing the full, numerable picture. To its credit, The Last Movie Stars attempts a similar reframing, striving to articulate holes in a celebrity history. But in relying on shiny individuals as its articulating apparatus, the series doesn’t question Newman and Woodward’s shine, but reinforces it. The history on the back of a baseball card is only that of an individual, history distorted by glamorous solipsism.

Moving from collective history to singular portrait, Captain Ahab: The Story of Dave Stieb further improvises on Mariners’s occupation with the possibly-poisonous quality of metrics of success. Bois diagnoses Dave Stieb’s pursuit of throwing a no-hitter as just another tendency forged by the pervasive myth of individual accomplishment, an aspiration as annihilation. Bois navigates the appeal of such aspiration, especially in the management/ownership-friendly forum of organized sports, especially in an eighties dominated by cinemas of individual might—it’s not a stretch to see Stieb as a Stallone or a Schwarzenegger. By the film’s end, the question is not whether Stieb threw the no-hitter, but what the no-hitter has come to not mean: as Bois describes it, “This is how baseball moves.” 

This formulation isn’t meant to be a deliberately frustrating, Karate Kid-ian provocation. “This is how baseball moves” is both an indication of the physics of trying to throw a no-hitter, but it’s also a cinematographic tendency: cameras in televised baseball games tend to follow the baseball in play as a centering subject. Captain Ahab unfollows it. The phrase also posits that neither film nor history has to be bound up in any specific way. Captain Ahab tracks Godard’s raw material of history in search of metaphors applicable to not only the past, but also the future to come. The piece speaks a wobbled truth, then, a thing between knowing and the as-yet-known, though it unfolds somehow beyond 24 frames a second. 

The “Jon Bois thing” also keenly indicates cinematic spectatorship, especially in his most recent piece, Section 1, which recounts Donald Kroner’s 1976 crashing/landing of a single-passenger biplane into Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium during a Colts-Steelers playoff game. Narratively, Section 1 is nearly Hitchcockian: the spectator is told that the plane will crash just after 5:00. This historical outcome is set. It’s Shadow of a Doubt, but instead of a maybe-murder, it’s a looming plane crash. Instead of Joseph Cotten, it’s Donald Kroner. Through his narration, Bois establishes Kroner, a recreational pilot and former veteran, as an imbalanced and clearly threatening figure. He’s fixated on the Colts, has appeared at multiple practices, has threatened to bomb a local team hangout, and makes no secret of his plan to buzz Memorial Stadium during an upcoming playoff game. Using Google Earth less covertly than ever, Bois aligns the spectator with Kroner’s point of view, situating the digital camera eye inside the cockpit; the spectator not only sees what the monster sees, but executes the monster’s actions. 

Section 1’s alignment with Kroner imparts a certain coherence to what makes Donald Kroner seem so monstrous and what makes sports so appealing: you can make an impact. You can be remembered. Memory can be influenced, violently if need be. The distinction between pitching a perfect game and thinking you have the right to fly a biplane dangerously low to a packed football stadium becomes nearly invisible. The specter of reckless individualism that haunts organized sports is baked more deeply into the uncritical, televising camera footage than it seems. By cross-cutting between the football game itself (narrated by Rubenstein) and Kroner’s tractor-beam flight (narrated by Bois himself), the distance between these seemingly-disparate worlds collapses. The final puncture occurs in a slim spit of video from the NBC broadcast. “Right before kickoff, the NBC camera crew gets a low-perspective shot from the Steelers’ sideline,” Bois says. It’s a disarming angle, one that Bois observes “you don't see in modern broadcasts”: Joe Green cut from the chest down, sleeves of under-identifiable players moving around him, a brilliant blue sky behind. The footage slows as the camera pans across John Banaszak’s back and there, darting in slow motion across the frame, is the speck of a plane. 

Section 1 (Jon Bois, 2022).

An equivocation: regardless of whether or not Bois makes “films,” it’s more illuminating that he employs techniques that echo, compete with, and occasionally remodel cinematic traditions. Section 1 is the first occasion of Bois and Rubenstein purposefully invoking cinema, both in the video’s subtitle (“A Short Film From Dorktown”) and their in-video attention to John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday (1977), a traditional feature with more than a little narrative similarity to the events of Section 1. The movement to establish, both in this essay and beyond, Jon Bois as a filmmaker working in, around, and through cinematic conventions and histories stems largely from his longer, near-epic video pieces: Mariners, of course, but also Fighting in the Age of Loneliness (2018) and The Bob Emergency (2019). And yet, Section 1 challenges this argument. In both form and content, it is the most conventionally “cinematic” of his releases, yet it is also the shortest. Section 1’s combination of brevity and ambition, even compared to Bois’s more explicitly Internet-content-length videos, forces us to reckon with something cinematic about his in-between-ness.

It’s not necessary to insist that every cultural object that springs from the Secret Base YouTube channel is a film: to do so insists on a certain nobility of the feature film, one tied to literal length and density. That insistence keeps a lot of voices and histories out of the canon, to say nothing of how it’s ultimately pejorative to anything that doesn’t cohere with the taste of the dominant art-making class at a given time. Why the urge to turn sports videos into “cinema”? A more rewarding task: to highlight the rhythms and moves that appear in Bois’s videos, connect the dots to both ancestors and contemporaries. This is not to suggest that Bois has to be read as inherently cinematic, but to embolden cinema itself to be more Bois. Cinema isn’t the perfection of anything, an end goal: Bois is too cannily suspicious of such rank, results-based, individualistic thinking. “Cinema” is just the collision of truths in motion, a moveable mode that lenses how we (re-)see the world.

Bois’s everything-ing approach—isn’t Moby Dick a 135-inning baseball game?—vibrates with the lifelong project of Harun Farocki to repurpose the world’s images and data into critiques of how that data seems set. Farocki’s predilection for multi-screen installations (like YouTube, maybe, as imperfectly curated as that gallery may be) challenge set notions of cinema as a medium for a single spectacular screen for a certain runtime. His experiments with not only digital cinema but also video-game cinema are in many ways the only logical antecedent to Bois’s Breaking Madden series. Beyond Vertov’s mechanical eye, these films cover humanity in a kind of video body. “The era of reproduction seems to be over, more or less,” Farocki said in a 2014 interview. “And the era of construction of a new world seems to be somehow on the horizon. Or not on the horizon, it’s already here.” For Farocki, these constructions occur most devastatingly in Serious Games I-IV (2009-2010), an exploration of the United States military’s deployment of literal war (video) games to train and condition their recruits. In Bois (who games games to create new digital-physical realities) and Farocki (who militarizes them to the extent the military does), these games—video, football, war—become pliable, all sites for a new alternative cinema. The digital camera eye becomes not a repository but a pen to outline—and puncture—the best limits of the American imperialist mythology, both intellectual and literal.

Bois also contains the sneaky confidence of Orson Welles: Pretty Good chimes with the same made-in-the-living-room feel of Welles’ great essay-film, F For Fake, as does Bois’s/Welles’s desire to simultaneously experiment (The Other Side of the Wind) in and around the possibilities of human achievement (Captain Ahab) while maintaining strict criticisms of the systems and structures that police possibility itself (Mariners/ Chimes at Midnight.) In Welles the radio actor, the great orator, Bois finds a common belief in the human voice as story and storyteller; that narrator’s voice treats Bois’s images with as much critical care as the eye. Is there any gesture in the rolodex of history more cinematically human than Welles-as-microphone narrating the credits of The Magnificent Ambersons? But then, is there anything more cinematic than the late Vin Scully calling Hank Aaron’s 715th home run?

The swing of Welles’ or Scully’s microphones, and the bodiless but centering narrations of Bois and Rubenstein, all indicate the presence of the human where it literally isn’t. We are created by our absence: as Jonas Mekas observed, “the real history of cinema is invisible history.” Mekas wasn’t talking about Seattle baseball or Atlanta football, but he was encouraging their inclusion within a narrative of celluloid defined not by its formal limitations but by its willingness to move and run. The less rigid a cinema, the less corruptible it becomes by capital and spectacle, the less inevitable it becomes. The more space for alternative tellings, the more room for alternative histories.

More than seeking to anoint the “Jon Bois thing” as cinema or not, this very institution is challenged to shake off its own rigidity. The best indication of the possibilities of Bois’s cinema is its accessibility, easy to find and free to view on the Internet. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than the exhibition woes of the recent past: outside of select museum engagements, Farocki’s films remain difficult to see, though some have been uploaded online, guerrilla-style. Welles, too, was no stranger to questions of restriction, always attempting to prank the mainstream into an experimental mood and too often being thwarted by literal money men.  As perfect as it feels to watch The History of the Seattle Mariners whenever, wherever, the Internet is far from free and open. Ads still appear, and there are intermittent gags in wireless connection—reminding us that we live in a history bound by capital and all its cruel keepers. An avant-garde is only as strong as its access dictates.

Mekas remains one of the defining caretakers of cinema not because of his considerable artistry or generous insight but because he gave the avant-garde a house of access. He allowed the air to become cinema. Those possibilities remain so long as new possibilities emerge: in August of 2019, the Beacon Theater opened its doors to South Seattle. A brand new independent theater, it was conceived by its co-proprietors Tommy Swenson and Casey Moore as a supplement to the local indie staple, the Ark Lodge, and not a replacement for it. The Beacon runs odds and ends rather than first-runs, as evidenced by its opening-week program of Duelle, Buddha’s Palm, ¡Las Sandinistas!, and Magic Mike XXL. The theater’s programming is, in so many words, a gesture toward sustaining interest in an avant-garde that exists outside of multiplex capitalism.

In early August, the Beacon programmed a screening of The History of the Seattle Mariners in its entirety, giving the people’s history the theatrical premiere it maybe never anticipated but assuredly deserved: demand was so high that the screening was moved to the higher capacity Ark Lodge. Bois and Rubenstein attended the screening, gave a talkback. That the 2022 Seattle Mariners clinched their first postseason run in 20 years shouldn’t shock: the heretofore unforeseen emerges out of love lobbed from a new perspective.

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