Dock Ellis As Icarus

The truth is never simple and yet it is. The truth is we did kill him. By silence we consented… because we couldn’t go on. But by Ares, what did we have to look forward to but to be discarded in the end like Cleitus? After all this time, to give away our wealth to Asian sycophants we despised? Mixing the races? Harmony? Oh, he talked of these things. I never believe in his dream. None of us did. That’s the truth of his life. The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams. – Old Ptolemy, regarding Alexander the Great, in the movie Alexander

Last night I watched No No: A Dockumentary, a documentary about the baseball player Dock Ellis.  He was famous for, among many things, throwing a no hitter on LSD.  The documentary was worth watching, really good even, but not exceptional.  The footage and the interviews were fantastic, but something about the way the different pieces were put together, the narrative arc, seemed a little loose and unfocused.

One of the things that I found disappointing, but did not take away from my enjoyment of the film, was the end of the film’s focus on Ellis getting clean and teaching prisoners how to reenter life.  Now this is true to life. I also don’t wish to discount what is obviously a noble pursuit for anyone.  But for most of the film Ellis is Icarus before the crash.  You know, because he is mortal, that his wings will melt, but you can’t help but enjoy watching him fly to close to the sun.  So often society wants the outcome of the Icarus myth.  They show a brief shot of his obituary and the newspaper’s headline says something about how he overcame drugs.  For much of his life Ellis was the black ball player that, during a time of extreme racial prejudice, refused to keep his head down.  He not only was a physical mutant, succeeding in MLB while being extremely high, but also quite fearless in his behavior.  When black ball players were expected to keep their mouths shut, enduring things that can only be seen as outright ignorance, Ellis refused to play by the rules of society.  He was never one of the silent masses, guilty by consent.

Early in the movie the film talks about how black ball players, in certain parts of the country, were supposed to stay in different hotels than the white players.  This is obviously insanely stupid.  Black ball players also had to deal with everything from racial epithets to threatening letters.  Ellis never let this kind of discrimination water down his personality.  He was bold and proud when the world wanted him to be meek, quiet, and safe.

Society, even today, wants people to know their place.  I don’t even necessarily mean this in a racial way.  It wants people to tow the line.  It wants people to apologize for their personal transgressions.  But the world needs people like Ellis.  It needs freaks and mutants that by design or will can’t conform.  Although there are many ways to challenge the absurdity of the world, one way is to match its absurdity blow by blow, to refuse to bend to the will of the ignorant.  For a longtime Ellis out-crazied the whirlwind.

He eventually takes it too far.  As one ages their body can no longer handle the excess of youth.  Society is more powerful than the individual and it eventually will take the edges off someone or destroy them.  Very few, like George Carlin, actually get bolder with age.  Even if you refuse to bend to the will of society, life will eventually defeat you.  But for a little while he was out their defying the powerful, even defying the gods.  He was up there in the clouds, free and beautiful, a mythic character in the flesh.

I’m not saying his later deeds do not deserve commendation.  His work with those on the outskirts of society were noble, good, and worthy of respect.  But don’t for a second discount his earlier accomplishments.  He was a heroic mutant, momentarily shaking off the shackles of the mortal.  I’m glad he was out there, for a little while…

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