“If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win”
Some weeks back I wrote a piece called Ten Reasons Why I Love You wherein I took a swipe at the American Film Institute’s Ten Greatest films in Ten Classic Genres. Reminding you of those ‘classic’ genres they examined Animation, Romantic Comedy, Western, Mystery, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Gangster, Courtroom Drama, Epic, and, Sports movies. Considering the curious distinction between science fiction and fantasy, the creation of ludicrous categories such as epic (defined by what? Running time? Budget? Ego? ) and romantic comedy (why not just comedy?), and the ignorance of genres such as documentary, horror and noir, the stand out sore thumb was Raging Bull, throbbing as the greatest sports movie of all time.
I love Martin Scorsese and I think De Niro is fantastic. They have done some great work together and they may still have one or two more left in them but is Raging Bull really a sports movie? I watched Raging Bull many years ago and I have tried to watch it many times since. Each time I give up at some point near the middle when the best of the fight scenes are behind us and we’re left with the kitchen sink (or should that be toilet bowl?) drama of the struggle between a bullish brother and his younger sibling, a bullying husband and his beaten wife. It is, in short, a beautiful film about an ugly man.
From the opening titles and that iconic score, played as the boxing ring’s ropes stretch across the screen like an empty staff awaiting musical notation, gorgeous cinematography bleeds black blood on white canvas and we find ourselves reeling around inside the ring. Punches take flight and land all around us as knees wobble, vision blurs and consciousness struggles to stay afloat. We stagger to the stool with each ring of the bell and when it rings again we rise to re-enter hell but eventually a greater hell of post bout boredom, binge eating, bickering and braggadocio emerges. These cycles continue from beginning to end, only De Niro’s Jake La Motta remains constant throughout. The supporting cast buckles under his increasing weight until squeezed out of existence by inflated bulk and fevered rage. De Niro eats the scenery as La Motta consumes friends, family and fortune, and the film reaches its logical conclusion when La Motta, finally larger than life, reflects in a backstage make-up mirror and monologues his best material to and for himself. It’s a fitting end that for some reason puts me in mind of Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Lenny Bruce’s latter day heroin-addled stand up performances which consisted of Lenny reading out legal letters, precedents and rulings linked to his desperate defense against charges of profanity brought forward by a black and white government terrified, like Raging Bull, of the colour red.
Though one is a defiant peacock and the other a deflated sparrow, each plays out their overlong death rattle to an increasingly disinterested public. It is so difficult for me to watch De Niro’s accusations of his wife’s infidelity and his brother’s disloyalty that having become familiar with the movie and knowing when the fight sequences end, I literally can’t go past a certain point and have to switch the film off. Maybe that is the way with sports and their greatest stars, they mean everything to us in their pomp but reflect too much of us when they retire to rejoin the human race. Which I suppose does make Raging Bull a ‘sports movie’ and a very, very good one to boot. But what of the others?
The AFI had the following beauties in its Top Ten sports movies, and remember, these exist within the context of the other genres that the AFI chose to ordain. Bull Durham (surely a comedy), The Hustler (a drama about poolrooms that owes much to On the Waterfront), Caddyshack (!!!!!!!!!), and Jerry frickin’ Maguire. By those definitions Brokeback Mountain is a Western and Top Gun is an epic military drama. However, two American sports movies do stand out as truly exceptional.
The first is When We Were Kings, the 1996 documentary about the 1974 heavyweight championship fight that took place in Zaire between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The fight itself was billed as the Rumble in the Jungle and the film shows the buildup to the fight, the electricity and fear fizzing through both entourages, the politics and terror under Mobutu’s local rule, and the fever of a country infected by the idea of two men being paid to fight for glory and fame. The film shows much of the fight itself but intersperses it brilliantly with talking heads interviews from the likes of Spike Lee and Thomas Hauser, and much more interestingly, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. Hunter S Thompson famously floated in a hotel pool in Zaire and missed the fight itself. Thinking Ali was doomed to an ignominious pounding at the hands of a much more powerful man, Thompson couldn’t stomach the thought of Ali’s dethroning from “The Greatest” and refused to attend the coronation of a would-be pretender. Fearing the same thing himself, Ali fought smart as well as strong. His famous ‘rope a dope’ tactic, whereby he planned to exhaust Foreman, is described in detail and shows Ali taking heavy blows from a haymaker throwing Foreman. Ali cleverly deflects the blows by quickness of reflex and smart use of the ropes until in the eighth round he knocks out the clearly exhausted Foreman and regains the championship belt that had been stripped from him at his refusal to be drafted into the United States Army during the Vietnam War.
Plimpton and Mailer deliver their messages with the same excitement they must have experienced ring-side when they first watched Foreman twitch and falter and Ali bounce and dance. “The succubus has him, she has him,” roars Plimpton while Mailer punches the air and bounces in his chair, barely staying in his seat as he regales the enthralled documentarians. Once the fight is over we don’t have to endure a further hour that describes Ali’s embarrassing losses in the 70s, his never-ending fight with Parkinson’s disease or Foreman’s descent into a crippling depression that took almost twenty years to break. When We Were Kings builds towards the fight and ends with the fight and maybe that’s an important point in and of itself. You can’t put a person’s life story on film, one way or another it’s just too much. By concentrating on a boxing match that took place forty years ago this film introduced me to the real Muhammad Ali story. I have since read The Fight and The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, the George Plimpton-edited biographies of Truman Capote and Edie Sedgwick, and Capote’s own In Cold Blood. The iconic picture of Ali standing over a flattened Sonny Liston hangs over the steps that mark the descent to my basement, going down indeed. All this from just one film! And still that’s not my favourite sports film because one candidate stands even taller than When We Were Kings.
Hoop Dreams was originally planned as a 30 minute documentary for PBS but ballooned to six year’s worth of filming and 250 hours of footage that follows the dreams of two black students in Chicago high schools as they strive, like millions of others, to excel on the basketball court and ultimately progress to play professionally in the NBA. In the year of Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption it was seen by many as the standout film of 1994. Blessed with gifts of talent and ability, both boys stand out on their communities’ hard-courts amongst poverty, drug addiction and low to no expectations.
Each boy is courted by St Joseph’s high school coach, Gene Pingatore with promises of success “at state”, college scholarships and dare they dream it, the NBA itself. Pingatore continually stresses hard work, team work and school work and straight away you spot the average kids that can adapt and the gifted kids that won’t. He also demands high academic grades but never involves himself with the unpalatable matter of his institution’s tuition fees unless of course there is a middle class white couple to be courted for the price of books when a varsity player’s tuition cheques start bouncing higher than the game ball. At various points in the film we see these children struggle to find their own path, surrounded by the failures of absent fathers and the soured dreams of disappointed siblings. Families are plunged into darkness for unpaid bills and friends descend to drug dealing when their own lack of skills and options become all too evident. All the while the camera watches on but at times with a sense that while intervening may interfere with art there is no option but to engage and console a heartbroken mother whose frightened son has just left for college.
Running at three hours, Hoop Dreams takes the time to sit in these people’s lives. It transfers from trains to buses as it accompanies both boys to school in the morning and celebrates a mother’s heart wrenching graduation from community college as she secures the qualifications that will allow her to work as a nursing assistant and earn more to support her faltering family. In following the lives of Arthur Agee and William Gates we can only draw closer to the screen and stare wide-eyed as each plays his way through injuries, exhaustion, love and sometime hatred of the game. As they approach a finale you wouldn’t dare script but pray will pan out, you realize that the underdog is rising towards the top not because this is a Hollywood movie but because all of these children and all of these families are underdogs in a poorer America that sometimes, just occasionally, allows one child to escape and move on up.
You want them to succeed but you never want it to end because this was never a movie about basketball or a movie about high school. Hoop Dreams is life, compelling and competitive, coaxing us into complicity by inviting us to linger long enough to take heed, engage, gamble and hope. One of my enduring disappointments in film is the appearance of the closing credits at the end of Hoop Dreams. Each time I have to accept that the film is over and I must leave their lives and get back to living mine, but I always wonder how those two boys ultimately fared. A 10 year anniversary DVD has been released with extra interviews updating their whereabouts, obstacles and successes but I really don’t want to know, at least not like that. I keep my ears and eyes open for the names of Arthur Agee and William Gates whenever the TV lands on an NBA game, sometimes that’s the only reason I stay tuned. There is more to life of course than NIKE contracts, gold medals and diamond encrusted teeth and if both of them never make it to the NBA that’s no great disaster of course but failure and defeat, be it on the basketball court or in a boxing ring, remain much more palatable as spectator sports than staring at failure and defeat in everyday life. We were once uncomfortable at George Foreman and Jake La Motta’s failures and the devastation that such public failure visited upon their lives, but we seem to have evolved from our shyness since the ballad of OJ Simpson and with each successive sporting antihero our tongues sharpen and our appetites deepen. There are very few princes among men these days and we ourselves are no longer kings or warriors, if ever we truly were.
I will repeat the opening quote again,“If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.” It is a line of dialogue from Raging Bull, delivered by an actor playing a man of far too many words and a stunted emotional range. It strikes me how it means absolute nonsense when applied to the lives presented in the other two films discussed here, where winning is everything and losing is simply not an option. To close, I quote a line delivered with some regret and reflection by coach Pingatore as he watches William Gates leave his office for the last time and move uncertainly and distrustfully into a world beyond high school sports elitism.
“One goes out the door, another one comes in the door. That’s what it’s all about.”
Raging Bull is life lived by an angry man who for the briefest of moments had everything. When We Were Kings reminds us of what it is to be alive and to bask in moments of greatness whenever we sense them near. Hoop Dreams however, might be everything to some and nothing to others. Hoop Dreams is life lived next door or just around the corner, a black kid in scuffed shoes jumping toward a hoop, bouncing a ball without a care in the world and dreaming of the NBA without a thought for college grades or high school championships. Stay awhile and watch him play, one day he might grow up to be the greatest you ever did see.