In the new feature documentary "Bounce," juggler Michael Moschen rhythmically bounces three balls inside a large triangle. Like much of the movie, this sequence is pure fun, but the film’s real purpose is expressed in its subtitle, "How the Ball Taught the World To Play."
"Bounce" was based on a book by John Fox titled "The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game." He’s also the film’s co-producer. Fox and Jerome Thelia, the documentary's director, joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: John, the film includes dazzling footage of chimps playing with a ball, kids in Brazil kicking around a ball that’s been made of scraps of plastic and cloth bound with twine — even dolphins learning to swim with a soccer ball underwater. What can animals and children teach us about how the ball taught us to play?
JF: Play precedes human culture. As we say in the film, we didn't invent play; we just added to it. And those sequences show that dolphins and chimpanzees not only play, but they play with objects, including balls, with the same degree of delight. And what we try to get at is why? A lot of it is the cognitive development, the way as a conveyor of social dynamic, and ultimately also just an expression of joy.
"Part of the point of the film in the end is to say there’s a lot involved in free-play that’s essential to being human."John Fox
JT: It might be quicker to give you a sense of where we didn't go — we went so many places. We really looked at this concept of the ball and how it teaches us to play, how it inspires us to play. We didn't want history or geography to be any kind of impediment, so we were really open to going anywhere, and filming just about anything to get at some of the core ideas of the film. So, that led us to the Democratic Republic of Congo, led us to India — look at cricket there, film kids playing marbles there as well — Bonobos playing with balls, also in Congo. We went to, in the end, to about 10 different countries, and went as far back as a couple million years in history to try and answer this question.
BL: John, you say in the film, which you co-wrote, “The ballgame is a microcosm of our lives. When we win, we thank God. When we lose, we curse the universe. It’s the place where we can act out the drama of human existence.” Can you elaborate a little on that idea?
JF: As far back as we can remember, the ballgames we played were tied to our belief in the universe. So, the ancient Maya, for example, believed that the ball was like the sun and the moon moving in the sky, and by playing the ballgame, they were perpetuating the universe. There's something else mental about that that I think is still with us today, where games that we play and watch are more than just what's happening in a game. There's always other dynamics at work — whether it's politics, whether it's race, gender — those are the things that are being negotiated in the act of playing. So in that way, it does sort of represent this microcosm of who we are as a society.
JT: There's a paradox at the core of all ballgames. The fact that, the rules are arbitrary, that it's only a game, and that, at the same time, we take it incredibly seriously.
BL: One of my favorite moments in the film features sociologist David Goldblatt, the author of several excellent books involving soccer. Here he is talking about the great leap forward that occurred when the people of South America discovered how to incorporate the sap from the rubber tree into their ball-making process:
"Imagine! You’ve spent millennia as humanity, kicking pebbles and skulls, and something bounces. Oh, my God!"
Beyond the sheer exhilaration of a bouncing ball, the rubberized spheroid was an important historical development as well, right?
JF: It absolutely was. As David points out earlier, the genius of Mesoamerican culture was to figure out not only how to use rubber to make something, but how to vulcanize it. That process of discovering it really brings together a number of elements that define not only the game, but its symbolic relationship to nature, and to culture, and to human intervention. It's really at the core of that game.
BL: "Bounce" bounces in a different direction at the end. Among the commentators who feels that play will “save” us from the world’s problems is editor and political writer Lewis H. Lapham. He says, "We will come up with some idea to rescue us. That’s where it will come out of. It will come out of the realm of play." As the film demonstrates, humans have played even as they’ve created pollution, over-population, global warming and so on. If it was going to save us, wouldn’t play have done so already?
JF: I mean, I think we've been creating problems and solving problems all at once over thousands of years. I don't think there's any one, single solution facing us. However, I think human history is one of free-play, and not so highly regimented and certainly not so commercialized. So, part of the point of the film in the end is to say there's a lot involved in free-play that's essential to being human, and essential to understanding and solving the complex world that we live in.
JT: It's not to say that it's a panacea, and we can solve all our problems this way. It's more of a wake-up call to say that if we listen to our biology rather than the most recent cultural innovations, that maybe we can get at the solutions to these problems a little bit differently.
This segment aired on May 2, 2015.