Tom and Jerry: Defenders of All Things Right and Good

Thursday, February 02, 2006

"Based on a true story"...and the New Triviality

For those of you who read this blog (both of you) and think I might have been off-base on my evaluation of Glory Road, Bill Simmons (the Sports Guy) over at's Page 2 weighs in:

…..look at "Glory Road", which tackles one of the most important moments in sports history: Don Haskins' turning around Texas Western's hoops team by recruiting black players, then battling racism at every turn to eventually win the 1966 title with five black starters against an all-white Kentucky team. Call it Black Hoosiers. How can that miss? Impossible, right?

Not when Hollywood is involved. Apparently the phrase "based on a true story" means "We bought the rights to a true story so we could perform more surgery than the guys in 'Nip/Tuck'." …… Glory Road pretends to tell Texas Western's story, even using real names and games, only it embellishes almost everything. Like Haskins' winning a title in his first season, when it actually took five. Or Haskins' making a dramatic statement by starting five blacks against Kentucky, when he'd actually been doing that all season. Why not go all the way and turn the backup center into, say, a secret member of the KKK?

I know they were relying on the Remember the Titans playbook here: a dash of racism, a little R&B music, some feel-good moments, sports scenes that feel like MTV videos, a tough-but-lovable coach, a poignant ending. But why would you want to fictionalize a watershed sporting event? Imagine a Jackie Robinson movie in which Jackie joins the Dodgers in 1955 and wins the World Series over the Yankees with an inside-the-park homer in the seventh game.* Would that be remotely acceptable? So why did the makers of "Glory Road" think they could do what they did? Worse, after they made all that stuff up, how could they run the "Here's what happened to each guy" closing montage as if they'd just wrapped up a true story? Why not tell us "Don Haskins continued to coach Texas Western until 1995, when he was mauled to death by a cougar while trying to save a family trapped in a burning car"?

For whatever reason, Hollywood doesn't understand that the phrase "based on a true story" leads to certain expectations…..

* Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1948. The Dodgers lost to the Yankees in the World Series in 1949, 1952, and 1953 before sweepeing them in 4 games in 1955

I did find it interesting that Simmons, in noting his disappointment with "sports movies" of late, did not mention Cinderella Man, an excellent, enjoyable film that was curiously overlooked by the Oscar committee. Or maybe not so curiously overlooked, as it doesn't have an aggrieved constituency group to represent, like North Country (sexually-harassed women), Good Night, and Good Luck (CBS journalists in the fight against 'Republican scare tactics'), Brokeback Mountain (homosexuals), or TransAmerica (transsexuals). Nor did it mouth a talking point like Syriana (it's a war for oil, etc.), Munich ("cycle of violence"), or The Constant Gardener (pharmaceutical companies are evil). Since the "Depression-Era Boxer" constituency group is (I imagine) rather thin, Cinderella Man is out of luck...

Film critic Jason Appuzzo calls this Hollywood trend "The New Triviality":

...If your film doesn't get us angry at Bush, Oscar just doesn't care. Why? Because we're now in the era of film as social activism, The New Triviality.

The Trivial film, you see, is merely an occasion for social activism or celebrity posturing. For example, on accepting a Golden Globe for his role in Syriana, George Clooney used the occasion to make an untoward crack about Jack Abramoff. A friend of mine angrily remarked that the comment had "nothing to do with the film" for which Clooney was being honored. I politely demured. "It has everything to do with the film," I said. Why?

Because Syriana, as its creators proudly admit, is really just a 'platform.' Just as Hollywood views films like Lord of the Rings as 'platforms' from which to sell merchandise, so too are films like Syriana or Good Night, and Good Luck or The Constant Gardener now viewed as 'platforms' from which to sell politics, to pontificate about the world we live in. After all, there really is no 'point' to a film like Syriana unless it's to enable a George Clooney to deliver political cheap shots on TV during awards season. He does it in the film, so why not on TV?

Of course, all of this Trivializes the cinema -- turning it from an art form into something much smaller, more polemical. That's why this year's Oscar nominees are truly films for the era of the iPod, with its 2-inch video screen. These new films make 'points' but constrict the imagination into something trite and pedantic - something with which we're supposed to be edified, rather than entertained...

...It is apparently no longer enough for audiences 'merely' to enjoy a film. Enjoyed Star Wars III or Harry Potter this year? Too bad. Together those films made $1.7 billion worldwide, but they didn't indict the global right-wing conspiracy of oil-homophobia-pharmaceuticals, so together they received only 2 Oscar nominations.

Meredith Blake of Participant Productions (the of film companies) recently stated that her company had repeatedly turned down films that were "creatively fantastic but found to be socially falling short."

"Socially falling short"?

If you love the movies, these words should chill your spine. They indicate that movies are becoming smaller, more partisan, more ...Trivial.

Remember in the fall of 2004 after Bush won re-election? Those on the left said it was because they "didn't get their message out". (I guess Fahrenheit 9/11 was too subtle). Mission accomplished, Hollywood...

"So where's your condemnation of right-leaning movies?" you may ask. Fair question. Please name a couple of major or semi-major Hollywood releases in the last five or so years that could be fairly described as "right-leaning" and I will be happy to oblige...


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