Saturday, July 23, 2016

CANON OF FILM: "BULL DURHAM"

BULL DURHAM (1988)

Director/Screenplay: Ron Shelton



I once saw a poll in Sports Illustrated where athletes voted on the 50 best sports movies of all-time based on the criteria not only of how good a film, but also based on the realism of the film. They didn’t pick “Rocky,” they didn’t pick “Hoosiers,” they didn’t even pick “Raging Bull,” or “Hoop Dreams.” Instead there number one choice was “Bull Durham,” which is interesting to me because I seem to have kind of a hard time imagining a real life person like the Susan Sarandon character from the film. She plays Annie Savoy, who looks at baseball as her own personal church, and in turn, it’s her job to do her part to help the local minor league team, the Class A Durham Bulls. (Actually, the more I think about her role, the less and less realistic it seems, although I guess some version of her has to exist somewhere) Including in this role that she’s apparently self-appointed herself to, is to be the personal, uh, hmm, how would I describe this… lets call her a personal psychological & physical “trainer,” to one of the players on the team, which will inevitably be the best player because most minor league players rarely stay on a team for long, or they usually get released or sent up, and Annie gets the best. Her two choices include the team’s young blue-chip pitcher, Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins) who’s got a fast but extremely wild arm, and his newly appointed catcher, career Minor Leaguer Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) who’s contract was bought out so he can mentor the kid. Now tension comes in this film as the two opposing teachers help Nuke become a better pitcher, while the movie also gives a rarely seen eye-view of what it’s like living and playing in the Minor Leagues, with long road trips, cheap motels, long bus rides to travel. There’s a poignant moment when Crash reveals that he spent 3 weeks in the pros, and all the other players listen as he tells his tale. He also wins a bet in a wonderful scene where he orchestrates a Rainout in the middle of a long heat wave. His style of teaching and playing is from professional experience, while Annie, is from, well, experience, in more ways than one, although I still have absolutely no idea what she means when she says to breath through your eyelids.

Tension starts to occur when Nuke goes on a winning streak after Annie withholds sex from him, and Crash instructs to never fuck with a losing streak. What truly differentiates this film from all other sports movie is it’s complete lack of sports clich├ęs. There’s no big game at the end, in fact it hardly seems to matter much whether the team wins or not (As it shouldn't it's only the Minor Leagues), there’s very little in terms of overcoming exceptional personal triumph, and instead the sport feels more like what everybody’s job is as opposed to anything particularly grander or holier than thou. Not only does everybody recognize that Nuke is destined for the pros, but they all also realize that most of the others will probably never make it, and are really just filling up slots on a roster, praying they can keep their jobs just a little longer, and keep that dream alive. There’s a fair share of odd characters, but nothing supremely outlandish like in “Major League.” Somehow, a romantic-comedy comes out of this film, which works both on the romantic and on the comedy, but I think this film remains as highly regarded despite that. At it’s core it’s a document on the day-to-day life of the lowest level of professional sports, and doesn’t remind us of the million-dollar a day salaries/lifestyles of players now. Writer/Director Ron Shelton, whose script got an Oscar Nomination, based the film on his own Minor League experiences as a Shortstop for the Orioles farm team, so yeah, there's a good reason the film holds a particular relevance to athletes, but it also holds up for everybody else as a great sports movie and a surprising realistic and great romantic-comedy. He's done other sports films since, some really good ones like "White Men Can't Jump", "Cobb", "Tin Cup", also with Kevin Costner, he even wrote the script for William Freidkin's underrated "Blue Chips", and all those films were at their best because they felt like real characters, in real situations, and didn't focus on the great grand moments of athletic prowess, which was the problem with his worst sports films, "The Best of Times" and "Play It to the Bone". Lately, however, he's expanded to a few more cop dramas, most notably "Dark Blue" and "Hollywood Homicide", and honestly they seem far more uninspired from him. It's so rare to find a good filmmaker who specializes in sports films and they're actually unique and good, I wish he'd focus more on that. 
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