Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


Spending a few days at my mother’s is always a good way to get in touch with the heartbeat of America. While my hometown isn’t exactly in the country’s “heartland” (I think that’s supposed to be in the Midwest), it’s close enough. Located in California’s dusty, hot San Joaquin Valley, it exists permanently for me somewhere in America’s golden age, i.e. circa the 1950s.

I know most media markets have “oldies” radio stations, but here they seem to have a pipeline directly to earlier decades and always seem to be playing on the car radio. And Mom frequently has the TV tuned to the TV Land channel, where The Andy Griffith Show and Leave It to Beaver seem to be playing all the time. It’s as though they never stopped being broadcast here since my childhood. Those two vintage sitcoms, in particular, evoke more than nostalgia—they generate feelings of downright inadequacy, since even with the passing of years Andy Taylor and Ward Cleaver still seem to be such perfect fathers. Maybe they evoked the same feelings in my own father when they were first broadcast. Unfortunately, I can’t ask him.

In addition to vintage sitcoms and the inevitable talk shows, the incessantly blaring TV also tunes in the occasional movie. Fortunately, they are not always the dreaded Lifetime movies. Over the weekend, we watched on American Movie Classics Moment by Moment (a wretched film that did absolutely no good for the careers of its stars John Travolta and Lily Tomlin or its director Jane Wagner) and Hoosiers, which I hadn’t seen before, and it occurred to me that, more than any other popular entertainment, a movie like this explains what America is all about. This is something I have been thinking a lot about in the wake of the 9/11 anniversary and my impending relocation abroad.

I used to think the family sitcoms, like those mentioned above, expressed the essence of America. In another phase, I thought it was Bonanza and its mythology about a rugged western family enjoying nature’s bounty and living life on its own (manly) terms. But right now I’m thinking it’s the sports movie, and its tale of transformation, redemption and triumph over impossible odds through teamwork and inspirational leadership. It is a story that has been told over and over, from Knute Rockne All American to Rocky to The Karate Kid to Remember the Titans. The elements to this story are fairly constant. There is a team of men (or sometimes an individual) of whom no one expects a great deal. There is a coach/trainer/mentor who challenges/badgers/motivates, yet whose gruffness merely covers up deep love and devotion. There is a transformation, as the team or individual is inspired to work, sweat and achieve more than was ever thought possible. And there is the climactic victory, against all odds, that crescendos with an incredibly emotional high.

Hoosiers is one of the best of the genre. This is probably due to director David Anspaugh’s feel for the time and place (he hails from Indiana) and Gene Hackman’s considerable skills in playing the coach. It qualifies as a classic piece of Americana not only because of its well-told sports story, but also for its portrait of small town life. On film, American small towns going back as far as Frank Capra are wonderful and horrible places. The residents resist and resent any change or any newcomer who wants to stir things up. And yet, when a hero arises in their midst, it is precisely the sort of fellow who has stirred things up. In Hoosiers, not only does Hackman’s personal style result in success and end up redeeming him, but we also have Dennis Hopper, in a role that seems to have been written for Harry Dean Stanton, redeeming himself as well by sobering up and regaining his son’s respect, all through the power of high school basketball.

I am not aware of any other country producing films like those of the American sports genre. The best comparison I can come up with is the British adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Fever Pitch. Like Hoosiers, it is an affectionate tribute to the love of a sport. But the key difference is that Hoosiers is about the participants. Fever Pitch is about the spectators. The English story is about the powerful emotions evoked by following and watching a team on its way to success. The American story is about being a part of such a team and also about leading it. In Fever Pitch, the person who is not interested in soccer is the odd one out; everyone else is united in their loyalty and devotion to the team. In Hoosiers, it is the man leading the team who is alone. He has little support among the town’s residents and at one point is virtually voted out of his job. His triumph must come with every hand against him.

This says something interesting about the character and psychology of America. Why are American films about sport (which, after all, are metaphors for war and one’s place in the world) always about the underdog? Wouldn’t you expect the mythology of the world’s sole superpower to evoke invincibility and inevitability? But this probably explains why America is the last remaining superpower. The nation has never stopped seeing itself as the underdog. It is as though its view of the world was formed forever when thirteen colonies surprised the world and themselves by defeating and gaining independence from one of the great powers of the time. This probably also explains why, when it comes to war movies, America is quicker to tell the story of Pearl Harbor than of, say, Hiroshima.

At the end of the day, what characterizes America and its image of itself is the idea that any person is capable of anything, no matter what their prior record may indicate. And that one individual can make a greater difference than a team or a town.

-S.L., 19 September 2002

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