Saturday, February 08, 2003

For the first year Cathy and I were living in Berkeley the Central Library was being retrofitted. Ideally, when the tectonic plates decide to yawn the newly retrofitted (lot’s of retrofitting going on out here) buildings will, as they say, roll with the punches. And look, if you’re going to live somewhere renowned for its ability to turn large swaths of landscape to jello, you make your peace with retrofitting and place your confidence with the wizards in structural engineering. Anyway, I rather like the Central Library, (there are four other considerably smaller branches) especially its minimal but endearingly quirky selection of CD’s and films. Lately they’ve been expanding their DVD selection, which while still sparse, now includes such masterpieces as Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up” from the Facets Video series Films From Iran and recently, several films on DVD by Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Taiwanese master. Somebody deserves a high five.

I still keep up with the latest Hollywood offerings (Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour being, hands down, the best to come down that avenue of late ) but not with the same kind of passion that I await the latest work from filmmakers like Spain’s nonagenarian, Manoel Oliveira, Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson or Taiwan’s Edward Yang. That such allegiances are almost always met with suspicion might owe something to the power of Hollywood’s populist machinery where increasingly corporate consolidation limits what we can and can’t see. Or maybe it has to do with the strange distinctions we make between “art” and “entertainment”- “highbrow” and “lowbrow” and the knee-jerk tendency of distributors (and quite a few moviegoers) to think of any film with subtitles as somehow a threat to the audience and its right for “mindless fun.” I suppose I shouldn’t fret about those whose definition of film is purely escapist- there’s a lot of escapist fun to be had and I like a good popcorn flick just as much as the other guy- but I have an evangelical streak when it comes to film, a compulsion to proselytize the fact that there are numerous other experiences it can offer (glimpses into other cultures, to name just one) beyond the frothy diversions we are limited to when we narrow our choices to the conveniences of the local cinemaplex.

Anyway, this is all another can of worms that I’ll more then likely return to again- I wanna talk about the Jerry Bruckheimer Production, Denzel Washington vehicle, “Remember the Titans.”

I’ve got a soft spot for some of Bruckheimer’s past productions, especially “Top Gun,” “Beverly Hills Cop”, “Crimson Tide,” “The Rock,” and especially "Con Air." Bruckheimer productions have become synonymous with “testosterone laced” action flicks, where high octane explosions usurp the necessity of character development, everything is bathed in a cool blue light and the liberal use of slow motion gives even the most inconsequential or mundane of actions a hyperrealism and gravitas not usually extended them. With “Remember the Titans” Bruckheimer, after much soul searching, decided to synergize- merging his brand of “testosterone laced” with Disney’s brand of “domesticated uplift.”

It’s 1971 in Alexandra Virginia, as the credits roll we’re efficiently pumped full of the premise- two white high schools and one black high school are, by court orders, to integrate. This includes the faculties as well. The evil school board (in the land of Disney, who we are to love and who we are to hate is never to be in doubt), in order to appease the liberal do-gooder race men, have asked the long time head coach of the T.C. Williams High School’s Titans, Bill Yoast (Will Patton, who is white) to step down so as to make room for Herman Boone (Denzel Washington, who is black). By way of explanation, the evil school board man tells Yoast, “Every coach in the system is white, we had to give him something!”

Needless to say, Denzel isn’t exactly made to feel welcome. The opening credits are still rolling but the plot is fully unfurled. You want racial fireworks, here you go! With Bruckheimer, if you’re order isn’t up in a minute, the meal is free.

Another hallmark of the Disney brand of “domesticated uplift” is its synergy with Motown. Roughly three minutes had passed before “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” arrived, signaling good times ahead. Disney, like most of the large corporations running film subsidiaries, likes to heat up and pour a thick lacquer of readily licensed Motown/Soul hits over what, they rightly fear, might otherwise cause our minds to wander away from the vanilla at hand. The songs are also there to act as “cultural touchstones” and allows the filmmakers to neglect all the ingredients that might otherwise go into a successful and, god forbid, complex storyline and supporting mis-en-scene. The songs are handy, prefabricated backdrops already invested with shared meaning. When we hear them, we know just how to feel. The downside to this is that it’s terribly lazy. Rather then invest the time and effort necessary to build an authentic world of objects to surround and support the characters (Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt,” managed to do just this better then any film I’ve seen recently) the various Motwon/Soul hits are trudged out instead to act as the quintessence of what the characters amount to. Which is to say, they’re just like a thousand other characters we’ve seen on the big screen who “developed” and shuffled through a thousand similar montages to the exact same song. They're cliches. Black and white ones. It all feels generic and neutered because it is.

Coach Boone isn’t a yes man. He storms into his new position, effortlessly hurdles over the petty vagaries of racism and deftly integrates both his team and coaching staff. Denzel can do this kind of thing with his arms tied behind his back. He oozes moral authority. But Bruckheimer films aren’t ever about the actor and the performance. The actor is a distraction from what’s most important- propelling the film forward and, most importantly (it’s Bruckheimer’s mantra) not losing the audience. If an actor has to be in the scene, well, shut him up, cue the music, bath him in techno blue light, light a fuse under his ass and send him into the ecstasy of slow motion. Since we’re contending with Disney’s “domesticated uplift” in this film, the blue light becomes a soft amber glow and instead of fuses being lit under the hind quarters there’s a lot of young male bodies hurling into each other- in slow motion. Denzel isn’t a character at all- he’s the force of good. He stands above the fray and is noble and wise. He is the uplift.

Of course there is tension amongst the blacks and whites- this is to be expected. It swells up to the sounds of “Spirit in the Sky” and a fight breaks out- it looks like a lot of fun with all those quick edits and pretty boys slugging it out- but it’s not. Blacks and whites shouldn’t be fighting each other! Coach Boone makes it a policy that for a portion of each day, a black player and a white player will sit together and “get to know each other.” One of the revelations of this tough love approach comes when a stunningly obese white player reveals that he likes The Temptations and breaks into song. It's almost that simple. 400 years of oppression be damned- if that fat dude likes The Temptations, well allllright! But Boone isn’t satisfied. He needs to dig deeper into the lore of what makes us American. What, he wonders, can he do to make these kids see past their destructive prejudices for each other and win some games out on the gridiron?

To the strains of “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall” Coach Boone runs the team through an early morning montage that includes a lot of physical exertion and heavy breathing. Finally Coach Boone stops. He’s led them to a cemetery. Not just any cemetery either- it's Gettysburg, where in the course of 3 days in July of 1863 over 51,000 men lost their lives in one of the most terrible battles of the Civil War. 100 patriotic violins take their cue and rise and swell as Boone, in the dawns early light, rhapsodizes about taking “a lesson from the dead” who only 150 years prior had destroyed themselves over just the very thing they’re destroying themselves over. It's stunning. It's stunningly crass. You're thinking...did what I think happen just really happen? Did Coach Boone really just make an analogy between the meaning and tragedy (51,000 men slaughtered) of Gettysburg and the difficulties of integrating a high school football team circa 1971? Indeed, he did. But then, Disney’s “domesticated uplift” posits that big lessons can be learned from our past and applied to our present, no matter how outrageously sweeping or dubiously co-opted.

It works! The speech is the breakthrough. It’s tidy and clean and so inexorably righteous that by the following scene Brotherhood comes in waves of fellow feeling and testosterone. The film even loosens up and introduces a sexually-ambiguous- hippy-army brat-quarterback. He might or might not be a homo but then you learn that, like Denzel's Coach Boone, the kid’s not really a character at all- he’s a lesson. He’s there to teach us that sexual ambiguity is ‘ok,' so long as we don't ask and he doesn't tell. But that’s not enough, because some viewers might feel kinda sorta icky about it all, you know, without any resolution as to just what his sexual orientation is, and so the filmmakers endow him with very special powers- the kid can move in the pocket with a preternatural (it’s almost feline) grace, sending his adversaries tumbling and spiraling while he remains practically beatific. So, you see, even if he is a homo (not that it matters what his "orientation" might be 'cause sexual ambiguity is ‘ok’) he’s definitely one of the coolest ever!

Just before Game I, Assistant Coach Yoast (who is now the Assistant Head Coach and has, of course, learned numerous life lessons from the oracle that is Coach Boone) learns from the evil school board that, first game Boone drops, he’s gonna get canned. Those bastards! Coach Yoast, however, has applied the lessons gleaned from his history lessons with Coach Boone and feels a grave and mounting anger toward those who would dare to mess with the oracle of all that is good and right and pure. Cheesy moral relativism be damned, for in the wonderful world of Disney, you’re either with us or against us. But they don’t lose because such is the power of good. I mean, of course they don’t. They keep on winning. Cat Stevens’s “Peace Train” plays and we see numerous hugs between actual blacks and whites.

They make it to the regional championship. The Head Coach for the opposing team refuses to trade game tapes with Boone, telling a local reporter, “I won’t do anything to help that monkey.” This guy is clearly evil or something! Ike and Tina Turner’s “I Wanna Take You Higher” comes on. I ‘dunno, but I think we’re being told to transcend such pettiness and take things up to another level! The Titans win. After the game the evil head coach guy won’t shake Coach Boone’s hand. Coach Boone, however, tosses him a banana. Take that you racist monkey-bating bastard! Then they win the state championship too. James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” comes on and Assistant Coach Yoast summarizes, saying of the mighty Coach Boone, “You taught this town how to love a man’s soul and not to judge him by the color of his skin.” Indeed. He did it with the pigskin, my brother.

It’s a great sentiment, loving each other for what’s inside rather then what’s on the outside. But should we let a film like this off the hook just because its heart is in the right place? In the Disney world of “domesticated uplift” the very real and unfinished struggle of integration, of black inclusion, is not just fodder for a rousing Denzel Washington vehicle, it’s also regulated to the distant past, as if its taint is no longer with us in the present. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of this film and its motivations comes from the egregious plundering of the history of integration and the troubled, often tragic history of race relations as so many pyrotechnics- the crass willingness of the filmmakers to co-opt a very real life struggle (the film is “based on true story”) and regulate it to the service of a drab football drama out to make a buck.