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3, 2, 1
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I have a friend who works for a modeling agency, and she told me of a curious phenomenon that exists amongst her students. Of all the exercises that the would-be models participate in improvisation, posing, auditioning, etiquette by far the most comfortable moments for the students happen during the "interview" session, when the teacher pretends to ask press-conference-like questions about the students lives and personal beliefs. Whatever awkwardness the students displayed in the other activities vanished immediately when they started talking about themselves they seemed remarkably savvy about the conventions of the "talk show" experience. In fact, my friend said they spoke so eloquently and confidently that they could have been a publicist's dream celebrity client no flubs, casual/funny, self-deprecating. It's as if they been practicing their whole lives for their "interview" moment.
During the fall, you'll see something similar on the "Friday Night Lights" high school football wrap-up shows on local news stations. Even the dorkiest, least socially skilled, small-town quarterback is remarkably polished in front of a microphone, speaking fluent sports cliches about "taking 'em one game at a time" and "playing your heart out for four quarters." It's obvious that the football players have been watching ESPN's "SportsCenter" for most of their lives, and are clearly comfortable speaking well-rehearsed idioms in front of a camera and a local sports anchor. It has always struck me as bizarre, though, that the interviewers treat the teenagers so reverently, as if they were adults; they joke with them, call them by their first name, speak enthusiastically about their talents, listen attentively when the kid describes a crucial touchdown or missed block. It's almost as if the sports anchors are mimicking the big-city sportswriters when they talk to the kids, acting like local beat reporters who establish relationships with players from the Colts or Bears while always trying to get an exclusive interview or break a story.
You can't really blame a kid for responding to reporters as Gore Vidal famously said, one should never turn down a chance to have sex or be on television but it's always unnerving when you hear a kid repeat hoary, time-honored cliches that are probably as old as Sport itself. After a painful IHSAA playoff loss in 2010, I heard a high schooler tell a local reporter that he "left it all on the field" and while I'm sure the kid was sincere about what he was feeling, the phrase seemed all wrong, a TV-scripted hyperbole that sounded too pat, too ready-made. And I swear, I'm not trying to rip the kid for his words; I'm just trying to figure out what it is about sports in a media-saturated age that makes such distortions so easy to articulate.
After Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit this year a huge milestone, for Jeter became the first Yankee to hit that number manager Joe Girardi said that Jeter's home run to get to 3000 was so dramatic that it was almost like a Hollywood script, like a perfect movie moment. My first thought after he spoke was, No, it wasn't. It was more like a one-out home run in the bottom of the 3rd to tie the game. Why drag Hollywood into it? Getting your 3000th hit on a home run (only the 2nd player to do it) is dramatic enough, and besides, you just know if Hollywood did make a movie about the event, they'd blow it: you'd get the inevitable shot of Jeter looking for his mom in the stands, you'd get a quick glance of the malevolent pitcher throwing a brush-back, you'd get a gratuitous close-up of the (probably cancer-ridden) ballboy exhorting his hero, and the home run itself would be a titanic shot to deep center that arced into the sun as the anthemic music swelled to a dramatic finale. And the filmmakers would probably change the game scenario, too, making it a bottom-of-the-ninth shot that propelled the Yankees to the pennant. What's wrong with the way it happened? Does everything have to be a movie?
And besides, I can't think of a more disreputable genre in all of Hollywood than the modern sports movie. I'm more likely to see the latest teenage body count gore-fest or awful Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com than any formulaic, underdog-team-winning-it-at-the-end audience pleaser. By and large, all sports movies are the same, from Hoosiers to Glory Road to Remember the Titans misfits/losers band together, meet the obstacles, suffer tragedies, lose lose lose then win win win. The movies are as predictable as a wound clock and often a lot less complex. And the kicker is, many of the movies are based on true events, which ought to guarantee some authenticity, but the dramatic embellishments dumped into the scripts actually make the movies more improbable than a Harry Potter film. I've tried to watch the football film Rudy a couple of times now, because it's a big favorite in these parts, and I can't get past the 10 minute mark: there's not a scene in it that feels remotely like real life, with real people.
Occasionally, a good one will sneak through and it's interesting that most of the good ones don't rely on the "big game" ending of ultimate triumph. Bull Durham is still the only baseball movie that matters, and there's no championship at stake, no lovable losers who put it all together for the pennant. The film's protagonist, Crash Davis, a lifetime minor leaguer, finally has to come to grips with the fact that he never made it, but even if he did, he recognizes that he'd still be an adult playing a kid's game, and is that such a good thing? Bull Durham manages to do something remarkable: it casts a critical eye at the absurdity of professional sports while at the same time, paying homage to the game and giving it its due.
The most successful sports movie of all time, The Blind Side, received a Best Picture nomination in 2009 and won an Oscar for Sandra Bullock, and while I've been assured by friends that it's worth my time, I can't do it: anytime I read a blurb that tells me a film will make me stand and cheer, I don't go. Movies that are aggressively life-affirming are the ones I aggressively avoid, for if it's one thing I've learned about film, it's that the good ones don't make you feel good. Plus, The Blind Side is a football movie, and football movies are the most egregiously uplifting of all sports films. My favorite football movie, Friday Night Lights (2004), is pretty low on the uplift. The footballers in the movie high school kids from an economically strapped, football-mad West Texas town are genuinely spooked by the fervency of the local fans. It seems crazy to them that the adults take such maniacal interest in what they do on the field. There is a big game in Friday Night Lights, and the team loses, but what stays with you is the kids' wide-eyed reactions to their supporters. They never seem comfortable in their roles as celebrities.