America’s primary cultural export has always been the Hollywood movie. Shortly after early cinema captured the public’s imagination, American movie studios captured motion pictures. Hollywood in turn captured the American moviemaking industry.
And then the world.
Over the course of the post-Lumiere century-plus, Hollywood has made itself ubiquitous in all corners of the globe. At times, the celluloid megamachine captures hundreds of millions of imaginations at once with a Star Wars or a Titanic; at others, film history buffs screen Clint Eastwood and Marilyn Monroe movies. But always – always – does the constant production of Hollywood put its version of America in front of millions, creating indelible images of a fantasyland that, for money, is America.
So what happens when the country’s top cultural export meets its top sport export, namely basketball? Unfortunately all too often, it’s something like Will Ferrell’s Semi-Pro.
Luckily, however, the director’s ball sometimes effortlessly flies through the basket, nothing but net and a clean swoosh. The result is a piece of filmmaking that moves us in the way that only cinema can. And the fans explode in cheering.
Following are a Dream Team’s worth of American basketball flicks for your perusal. As informal American cultural ambassador here at BallinEurope, provided as well are a referee’s calls on mischaracterization together with a bit of insight into the mother country.
And I’ll see you at the movies.
The Basketball Diaries. Basketball acts primarily as background here, despite its prominent placement in the title. Check out the compelling and surreal story of real-life author, poet and rocker Jim Carroll, a bizarre tale of a basketball- and poetry-loving boy hooked to heroin at age twelve.
Incidentally, here’s “I Know Some People Who Died” by the Jim Carroll Band (lyrics are here):
Truth-stretching: Yes, heroin is bad, but remember what Carroll got out of it – some priceless poetry and music.
Eurolesson: Even the often gaudy embarrassment of riches that is America can be unsatisfying.
The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. The Godzilla vs. Monster Zero of sports movies: So bad it’s good. The fruity plotline centers on the Pittsburgh Pisces, the worst team in the NBA, whose owner gets the crazy idea to call in a psychic to sort things out (maybe Isiah Thomas should’ve tried that). The team assembled is a standard cast of wacky characters lead by Julius “Dr. J” Erving, the Harlem Globetrotters’ Meadowlark Lemon, certifiably insane Jonathan Winters in a dual role, and Stockard Channing as the positively yummy team psychic. Plus, Laker haters will appreciate that the purple-and-gold guys are the baddies. Unfortunately nearly impossible to find on VHS; never, to my knowledge, released on DVD.
Truth-stretching: The ease in which franchise-altering decisions are made are pure cheesy Hollywood. And the NBA was never this popular in the ‘70s.
Eurolesson: Julius Erving’s star turn in this movie proves the American Dream is true: Anyone, no matter how humble his origins or limited his talent, can make it in Hollywood. (Of course, having a few NBA titles to your credit helps.)
He Got Game. The shameful lack of knowledge of Spike Lee films abroad is matched only by a similar lack in his home country. His gritty and honest style has been done in fantastic films – most utterly bypassed by the mainstream – such as Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Clockers, Crooklyn, Get on the Bus, Summer of Sam, and The 25th Hour. Check anyone of these out; they’re all good.
He Got Game (ignore the incorrect grammar, please) is Spike’s full-on foray into the world of high-school basketball superstardom. Fueled by a soundtrack by Public Enemy, Spike emphasizes the shattered relationship of a might-have-been baller (Denzel Washington) and his will-be-great son (Ray Allen). It’s deep, smart, serious, wonderful and an uncompromising look at darker facets of America.
Truth-stretching: The “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype? Please.
Eurolesson: Oh, yes, there is corruption at the highest levels of American sport business. They’re just more discreet.
Hoop Dreams. A no-brainer. Some critics called this the best film of the 1990s; they may be on to something. Perhaps the single best documentary ever made (and certainly the best on sports), this three-hour-plus near-epic follows two young men making their way through the Chicago high school system. Starting with a dude who gets paid to scout ten-, eleven- and twelve-year-olds (!) on inner-city playgrounds and finishing with a little display of shaky university recruitment ethics, this tells the facts about the basketball industry in America today. Reality TV producers around the world wish they could make something one-tenth this good.
Truth-stretching: None. Though one always wonders how (and sometimes if) documentary filmmakers stay out of their subjects’ lives.
Eurolesson: It is said that no country has a greater disparity of wealth between its richest citizens and its poorest. Hoop Dreams is the antidote to a million squeaky-clean color-blind Hollywood films.
Hoosiers. Corny as Kansas, this cheesy sentimental movie is still worth watching and makes virtually every movie fan’s best sports films list. This one is perhaps the best of the feel-good genre and is again loosely (see above) based on a true story, that of a tiny-town high school team that wins the state championship. Excellent score, quick action, believable characters (though laden with some silly dialogue at times) and Dennis Hopper’s big screen comeback.
Truth-stretching: The portrayal of the basketball-loving Indiana folks who set choice of religion on an equal level with choice of full-court defense is a bit unfair: They’re way more obsessed than that.
Eurolesson: Um … sometimes Hollywood escapism can be good?
White Men Can’t Jump. Starring the eminently likable duo of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson (plus that bubbly sex bomb Rosie Perez), White Men allows its excellently-cast cast some unbelievably uproarious dialogue with the first twenty minutes of this film about basketball comprised of about 97% trash talking and 3% hoops.
Truth-stretching: Though the court is undoubtedly a place where racial bullshit takes a backseat to your abilities as a player and though the scam dreamt up in White Men is utterly believable, no one should honestly believe that America’s race relations problems are quite this easy to solve.
Eurolesson: With this film, the importance of basketball to American urban culture is well displayed. Plus, there’s tons of excellent slang for ESL students to admire. Just be careful with that usage of the “momma” stuff.