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Saturday, January 31, 2015

January 31-February 1, 2015: January 2015 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
January 5: Waltham Histories: The Watch City: A series on my new home starts with three exemplary stages of Waltham’s and America’s histories.
January 6: Waltham Histories: The Waverly Trail: The series continues with three profoundly American moments in the history of a beautiful natural wonder.
January 7: Waltham Histories: Historic Homes: What we can learn from three of Waltham’s prominent historic houses, as the series rolls on.
January 8: Waltham Histories: National Archives at Boston: Three fascinating document collections found at Waltham’s national archives.
January 9: Waltham Histories: Wilson’s Diner: The series concludes with an example of the compelling everyday history that’s all around us.
January 10-11: Rob Velella’s Guest Post: But wait, a special repeat Guest Post from my favorite Walthamite rounds out the series!
January 12: Spring 2015 Previews: Chesnutt and the Ferguson Syllabus: A series on plans and goals for the spring semester starts with why I added a text back onto my survey syllabus.
January 13: Spring 2015 Previews: The Romantic Movement and Era: The series continues with two different but interconnected layers to a course I’ll be teaching for the first time.
January 14: Spring 2015 Previews: The Relevance of Major Authors: Three ways classic American literature can resonate with our contemporary identities and world, as the series rolls on.
January 15: Spring 2015 Previews: Bringing my Hall to ALFA: The five inspiring American figures I plan to share with my next Adult Learning course.
January 16: Spring 2015 Previews: Independent Studies: The series concludes with three different kinds of work with individual students, and how they all contribute to my perspective.
January 17-18: Spring 2015 Previews: The NeMLA Conference: But wait, once again the series extends to the weekend, this time with three things I’m looking forward to at the NeMLA conference in Toronto.
January 19: MLK Stories: The Real King: An MLK Day series starts with my annual post on why and how we should better remember the many sides to King.
January 20: MLK Stories: Selma: The series continues with what’s especially inspiring and important about the new film, and what’s a bit more problematic about it.
January 21: MLK Stories: Coretta Scott King: Why and how we should remember King’s wife and the Civil Rights Movement’s female leaders, as the series rolls on.
January 22: MLK Stories: The Mountaintop: The recent play and the challenges, benefits, and limitations of humanizing our historical icons.
January 23: MLK Stories: Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton: The series concludes with two men and generations that extended King’s and his movement’s legacy.
January 24-25: Crowd-sourced King: My latest crowd-sourced post, with the responses and other MLK connections of fellow AmericanStudiers.
January 26: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Bad News Bears and Boys: A Super Bowl-week series starts with our obsession with lovable losers, and a problem with it.
January 27: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Hoosiers and Rudy: The series continues with a couple inspiring underdog stories, and what gets left out in the telling of them.
January 28: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Longest Yard(s): What the original and remake help us understand about their respective eras, as the series rolls on.
January 29: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook: The interesting results when an unconventional filmmaker works in a highly conventional genre.
January 30: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Remember the Titans: The series concludes with the over-the-top scene that really shouldn’t work, and somehow still does.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, January 30, 2015

January 30, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Remember the Titans

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On the over-the-top scene that really shouldn’t work, but somehow does.
About midway through Remember the Titans (2000), Denzel Washington’s Coach Herman Boone takes the players on his newly integrated Virginia high school football team (who have gone to Pennsylvania for training camp) on a midnight jog. The team ends up, to their and the audience’s surprise, on the grounds of Gettsyburg National Military Park, where Boone gives a speech on the Civil War battle and both its continuing resonances in and potential lessons for the team’s and its community’s struggles with racial discord and division. The speech and scene ends with Boone’s fervent hope that perhaps, if the players and team can learn the lessons that the battle’s dead soldiers have to offer, they can “learn to play this game like men.”
For anybody who has any sense of the horrific awfulness that was Gettysburg, or just the horrific awfulness that was the Civil War in general (and I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates when he argues that the war wasn’t tragic, but it sure was bloody and awful in any case, and never more so that on days like Gettysburg’s), this evocation of the battle’s dead for a football team’s lessons feels a bit ridiculous. For that matter, if we think about the most famous speech delivered at the battlefield, in tribute to those honored dead and in an effort to hallow that ground (a phrase that Boone overtly echoes in his own closing thoughts), the filmmakers’ choice to put Boone’s speech in the same spot (and I don’t know whether the Gettysburg speech took place in the real-life histories on which the film is based, but it seems from this article as if it didn’t and it’s a choice in the film in any case) feels even more slight and silly in comparison to that transcendent historical moment.
So the scene really shouldn’t work, not for this AmericanStudier at least—but I have to admit that it did when I saw the movie, and did again when I watched the scene to write this post. Partly that’s due to the performances—Denzel is always Denzel, and the main kids are uniformly great as well (including a young Wood Harris, later Avon Barksdale on The Wire). Partly it’s because great sports films are particularly good at taking what is by definition cliché (all those conventions I mentioned in yesterday’s post) and making it feel new and powerful in spite of that familiarity. And partly, ironically given those Gettysburg contrasts, it’s because of the history—because this football team and its story does connect to America’s tortured and far too often tragic legacy of racial division and discrimination, and because the story and thus the film represents one of those moments when we transcended that legacy and reached a more perfect union. When sports, and sports films, are at their best, they have that potential, which is one main reason why we keep going back to them.
January Recap this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

January 29, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On the interesting results when an unconventional filmmaker works in a conventional genre.
Like any well-established and longstanding genre (from romantic comedies to slasher films to Westerns to action movies), sports movies tend to operate according to certain conventions. As my posts this week have demonstrated, there are certainly different options within those conventions, such as the lovable loser story or the heroic underdog tale. But even across those sub-genres, many of the genre’s conventional beats and stages still apply: the training montage, the moment when all seems hopeless and lost for our protagonists, the dramatic shift that signals the start of something more positive, and so on. Whether we’re talking about the Daniel-san in The Karate Kid (1984), the Jamaican bobsled team in Cool Runnings (1993), or Keanu and his fellow scabs in The Replacements (2000; another team coached by Gene Hackman, in case the genre echoes weren’t strong enough), the story is still the story, by and large.
So what happens when a filmmaker whose career has been one long refusal to adhere to convention turns his attention to sports movies? We’ve seen two recent examples of that combination in the career of David O. Russell, the highly unconventional filmmaker behind movies as diverse but uniformly unusual as Spanking the Monkey (1994), Three Kings (1999), and I Heart Huckabees (2004). Russell’s most recent film was the Oscar-nominated blockbuster American Hustle (2013), but before that he made two successive films that I would classify as highly unconventional sports movies: The Fighter (2010), the story of real-life Lowell, Mass. boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his drug-addicted half-brother Dickie (the phenomenal Christian Bale); and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), a screwball romantic comedy about two troubled Philadelphians (played to perfection by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) that turns into a sports movie as they train for a climactic dance competition while Cooper’s father (Robert De Niro) makes a life-or-death bet on an upcoming Eagles game.
In some ways, both films adhere closely to the kinds of conventions I highlighted above: Silver Linings has both an extended training montage for the dance competition and a lovable losers ending (they score a highly mediocre score, but it’s what they needed for the bet so mediocrity is victory in this case); The Fighter ends with its heroic underdog overcoming his obstacles, winning against all odds, and winning the girl in the process. But it’s in their extended, nuanced, dark yet thoughtful portrayals of mental and physical illness that both films go outside the bounds of typical sports movies. By far the best sequences in The Fighter involve Bale’s Dickie, who neither a hero nor a lovable loser, but an addict and criminal struggling to survive from day to day. And despite its more conventional (and foreshadowed from the title on) happy ending, Silver Linings takes all three of its protagonists and its audience with them to uncomfortable places, asking us to see these characters not as underdogs or losers or any other types, but as three-dimensional humans struggling with the kinds of challenges against which there is perhaps no victory, simply endurance. That might not be a sports movie lesson, but it’s a pretty important one.
Last MovieStudying tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

January 28, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Longest Yard(s)

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On what the changes between an original film and its remake can tell us about American narratives.
I’m not going to try to make the case for the original The Longest Yard (1974) as some sort of American classic, but it does offer a pretty gritty and realistic depiction of prison life and community amidst its more comic moments and its lovable underdogs sports story. The film’s sadistic Warden Rudolph Hazen, played to sleazy perfection by Eddie Albert, could be transplanted without much revision to a more overtly realistic contemporary film such as Cool Hand Luke (1967). And as the disgraced football star turned convict, Burt Reynolds feels precisely as flawed and frustrating yet ultimately heroic as Paul Newman in that film or Jack Nicholson in the following year’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). So you know what, maybe I am making the case for Longest Yard as a minor American classic, perhaps not quite on par with those contemporary films or another like Dog Day Afternoon (1975), but in the conversation at least.
It will likely come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Adam Sandler’s film oeuvre that the 2005 Longest Yard remake, starring Sandler in the Reynolds role and James Cromwell as the Warden (among many other celebrity roles), is not a classic, minor or otherwise. While I try not to sum up entire works with one moment or detail, I’d say this one qualifies: in the original film, the climactic game between the prisoners and guards was a brutally realistic grudge-fest, with lives and futures on the line; in the remake, that’s ostensibly still the case, but at one point Sandler’s quarterback gives one of the guards a wet willy. I can’t say it any more clearly than does the Wikipedia entry on the remake and its critical reception: “the greatest complaint from critics was that it replaced the original’s dark comedy and grit with juvenile humor and visual gags.” Since “juvenile humor and visual gags” is what you’ll find if you look up “Adam Sandler” in the dictionary, it’s fair to say that his presence had a lot to do with that change; but I would also argue that the two films reflect a significant difference in our national narratives about prison.
In my post last summer on Dog Day Afternoon, I wrote about the 1971 Attica Prison rebellion, and the way those prominent and controversial events foregrounded issues of prisoner treatment and life in this easily overlooked American community. Popular and influential films like Luke and Yard likewise reflect the presence of those issues in the era’s collective conversations. In the 21st century, on the other hand, we tend not to think about our prisons and their communities at all; when we do, as John Oliver highlights in this brilliant piece, it’s mostly as fodder for jokes about prison rape (perhaps the least appropriate subject for jokes imaginable) or as the subject of melodramatic entertainments like Oz and Orange is the New Black. So if the remake is set in the same community that was the subject of those gritty, socially realistic earlier films but is instead full of dumb jokes and silly entertainments untethered from reality (which are the variant definitions of “Adam Sandler”), that would seem to be a pretty accurate depiction of the way we now engage with prison, when we engage with it at all.
Next MovieStudying tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January 27, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Hoosiers and Rudy

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On the appeal of underdog champions, and the untold sides to their stories.
If yesterday’s two types (heroic losers like Rocky Balboa and lovable losers like the Bad News Bears and Costner’s protagonists) occupy two spots along a spectrum of sports movie protagonists, then heroic underdog champions occupy a third, even more inspiring slot. Such characters are as admirable and heroic in their personal qualities as Rocky, but seek something more than just going the distance—they want to achieve the unlikeliest of victories, to knock off the seemingly unbeatable champion. Perhaps the most striking such underdog champions in both sports and sports movie history are the Miracle on Ice hockey gold medalists of 1980—but since that group was still an Olympic team for one of the most successful nations in Olympic history, I would argue that the midwestern protagonists of Hoosiers (1986) and Rudy (1993), both films directed by David Anspaugh and written by Angelo Pizzo, provide even more clear examples of this type.
It’d be hard to decide which of those inspired-by-a-true-story underdog victories is more unlikely and more inspiring. The Hickory high school team in Hoosiers (based loosely on Milan High’s 1954 championship season) is coached by two men as collectively flawed as Buttermaker in Bad News Bears—Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale has been dismissed from his prior job for losing his temper and striking a student; Dennis Hopper’s Shooter Flatch is an alcoholic town outcast—and has barely enough players to field a team, yet goes on to win the state championship against a vastly more deep and talented South Bend team. Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, whose life and events are portrayed relatively close to accurately by Sean Astin and company, is the undersized son of an Illinois factory worker who refuses to give up on his dream of playing football for Notre Dame, overcoming numerous challenges and obstacles and finally making his way onto the team and into the final game of the season, in which he sacks the quarterback on the final play and is carried off the field by his teammates. Having critiqued lovable loser films for their merely pyrrhic victories, it’d be hypocritical of me not to applaud films that depict underdog victories, and such stories are indeed undeniably appealing and affecting.
Yet in order to tell their stories in the way they want, these films also have to leave out a great deal, elisions that are exemplified by the way racial issues are not addressed in Hoosiers. For one thing, Hickory’s opponent in the championship game, South Bend, is intimidating in large part because it features a racially integrated team, which would have been a significant rarity in 1952 and which would seem to make them a team worth our support. And for another, as James Loewen has written in his groundbreaking book Sundown Towns (2005), southern Indiana in the early 1950s was a hotbed of overt and violent racism; to quote Loewen, “As one Indiana resident relates, ‘All southern Hoosiers laughed at the movie called Hoosiers because the movie depicts blacks playing basketball and sitting in the stands at games in Jasper. We all agreed no blacks were permitted until probably the '60s and do not feel welcome today.’ A cheerleader for a predominantly white, but interracial Evansville high school, tells of having rocks thrown at their school bus as they sped out of Jasper after a basketball game in about 1975, more than 20 years after the events depicted so inaccurately in Hoosiers.” Such histories don’t necessarily contrast with those featured in these films—but it would be important to complement the films with fuller engagement with their perhaps less triumphant contexts.
Next MovieStudying tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

Monday, January 26, 2015

January 26, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Bad News Bears and Boys

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On the American obsession with lovable losers, and a problem with it.
One of the best sports movies of all time, Rocky (1976), features a protagonist whom I’d call a heroic loser. That is, even before Rocky Balboa went on to win all the climactic fights in his subsequent films, his initial losing effort against Apollo Creed was a reflection of his heroic qualities: his grit and perseverance, his desire and ability to “go the distance.” Well, that’s not the kind of loser I’m going to focus on in this post. These losers are the drunken coach and his team of misfits and outcasts who lose the championship game and then start a brawl with the winners (The Bad News Bears), the drunken career minor leaguer who ends his career setting a record that nobody will remember and then quitting (Bull Durham), the drunken washed out golfer who blows his one chance at redemption due to a stubborn insistence on perfection over success (Tin Cup). Other than drunkenness, what defines this bunch is precisely how anti-heroic they seem.
But on the other hand, they are the heroes of their stories, each of which culminates very fully with a moment that asks us to cheer for the protagonists—often in the precise moment of their lovable losing (such as Tin Cup’s catastrophic final hole), and always in triumphs that are framed as far more important than the actual on-field victories would have been (the Bears proving that they’re a team, Costner’s characters getting the girl). Concurrently, their stories’ actual victors are typically framed as either unlikable snobs (the Yankees in Bears, Don Johnson’s rival golfer in Cup) or at best clueless jocks who will never understand what’s most important (Tim Robbins’ star pitcher in Bull). In a nation that was created out of a revolution that pitted farmers against the world’s greatest army, a nation whose general and first president pretty much never won a battle in the course of that revolution, it’s easy to see where this embrace of losers over snobs, the flawed but lovable everyman against the powerful champion, arises—and easy to embrace it ourselves as well.
I enjoy those characters and their stories as well, and am certainly not advocating rooting for the Redcoats during the Revolution (you definitely lose your AmericanStudier card for that one). But I think there’s a subtle but significant problem with these lovable loser stories, now more than ever: they make it much easier to swallow substantial inequalities, to see it as sufficient to achieve pyrrhic victories against the powers that be and thus leave those powers ultimately unscathed. That is, whereas Rocky hit the unbeatable champion Apollo hard enough that he famously noted, “There’ll be no rematch,” in these lovable loser stories the champions don’t seem much affected at all—it’s simply about the little guy achieving whatever victory he can reasonably get, and us all being happy with that. And at the end of the day, that seems like a recipe for giving up even the idea that either side can win—an idea that, mythic as it may too often be, is to my mind at the core of the best version of American identity and community.
Next MovieStudying tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

January 24-25, 2015: Crowd-sourced Selma

[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this week’s series has focused on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. For this crowd-sourced post, I decided to highlight a few of the many wonderful pieces that have been written about and in response to the film Selma—add your thoughts or reviews, please!]
I’ll start by highlighting one more time my Talking Points Memo piece from this past Monday.
Wesley Morris’s review of the film on Grantland was very much in the same vein as my thoughts.
As with this great Amy Davidson piece in The New Yorker.
The inspiring John Lewis wrote an op ed sharing his own thoughts on both the film and the histories it captures.
Public historian and scholar Devin Hunter wrote some first thoughts on the film here.
Lonnie Bunch, director of the African American History Museum, had this perspective on the film.
Scholar Brittney Cooper wrote a great piece for Salon.com on the LBJ controversy.
Film critic and historian Robert Jones, Jr. wrote an open letter to the film’s director, Ava DuVernay.
DuVernay screened and discussed the film (with the help of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) here in Somerville.
And We’re History published this piece by co-editor David Chappell on the past and present debates over the MLK holiday and the many historical and contemporary issues to which it connets.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other responses or connections you’d add?