MyAmericanFuture

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January 31, 2018: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Longest Yard(s)



[Each of the last six years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I’ve decided to focus on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your responses and nominees in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’s sure to take home the championship!]
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 this post 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 30, 2018

January 30, 2018: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Hoosiers and Rudy



[Each of the last six years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I’ve decided to focus on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your responses and nominees in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’s sure to take home the championship!]
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 29, 2018

January 29, 2018: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Bad News Boys and Bears



[Each of the last six years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I’ve decided to focus on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your responses and nominees in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’s sure to take home the championship!]
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?