are many things that you can say about America in the Age of Bush.
One of them is that America seems to be the land that fun forgot.
The stock market is a shooting star and tycoons are paying less
tax on more loot. But the little people are feeling low. The war
stinks, gas is expensive, foreclosures are rampant, the culture
fails to nourish and doctors are writing scripts for anti-depressants
like a million monkeys writing Shakespeare.
quote Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all
over again. If you liked Nixon, you must be loving George
the Younger. For those of us harboring darker emotions, these are
dark days indeed.
a man cruising into his forties on an ill wind of pique and fatigue,
I have begun searching the cinema of the seventies, the graveyard
of Nixon’s folly, for role models who can see me through to
better days. Contemporary touchstones are lacking. I’ve sat
through horrible things like Little People, and marveled
at how this is supposed to be profound commentary on men growing
older and more pathetic in American suburbs. Thank you, no.
stop, The Bad News Bears. When you’re a kid,
adults seem like an alien species. We didn’t know the details
of their lives but we knew they had
lived much longer than us. They were slower, fatter, worn down and
worn out. Just like Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau),
the boozy ex-minor league player who barely earns his keep cleaning
pools. A dodgy councilman recruits Buttermaker to coach a team of
ethnic, pint-sized misfits, mandated by some civil rights lawsuit.
The role is perfect for Matthau who perfected this kind of shambling
loser with a liver of gold long ago.
my colleague Nick Rombes has noted, the film delights in a punk
sensibility on display from the very opening, when Buttermaker arrives
at the ballpark with a cooler of brew and a fuming cigar. One sequence
later, a local juvenile delinquent livens up opening day by tearing
around the bases on his motorcycle as horrified parents and local
officials look on. Before he takes his coaching gig seriously, Buttermaker
has the kids mixing martinis for him and cleaning his pools. The
Southern Cal suburban setting and the general tone of nervous propriety
make the various acts of defiance all the more savory.
this is a film of small yet meaningful anarchies, not the least
of which is that Buttermaker is still tippling and smoking by the
time his team loses the championship game to a bunch of robo-kids
coached by a tight-ass bully who cares more about winning than the
kids having a good time. Even better, Buttermaker convincingly
rebuffs the efforts of the precocious Amanda (Tatum O'Neal) to rekindle
his long-dead romance with her mother. Buttermaker refuses suburban
domesticity just as the kids refuse the often weak authority of
adults who joylessly adhere to agendas of control and comfort. If
Buttermaker is transformed, it is because he realizes that the kids,
foul-mouthed and ill-tempered, got that way paying careful attention
to the idiocies of adults. He engages the tots as they are and they
respect him for it.
Richard Linklater tried a remake of this film is beyond me. The
original said it all and said it well.
the same can be said for Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), the beleaguered
player/coach of the Charlestown Chiefs in the film Slapshot.
His team sucks because his players, a motley crew of hackers and
has-beens, suck. The team’s general manager is a shifty geezer
who floats a cockamammy story about the team relocating to Florida.
This gets the players all aflutter about new life skating under
the palms but Reggie isn’t buying it. In order to boost the
team’s market value, Dunlop is forced to baby sit a trio of
childish goons who, when they’re not busting heads on the
ice, play slot cars in the dingy hotel rooms the team endures on
the road. Before long, the Chiefs are a hit with the town rabble
looking for a bloody diversion from the recent closing of the town’s
is great in this role. His Reggie is a jovial yet befuddled man-child
trying to figure out what comes next but he’s not smart enough
to hatch a viable plan. He has to play it by ear and he doesn’t
particularly care for it, especially when his ex-wife won’t
have him back. When he finally confronts the team’s owner,
a wealthy suburban single mother, she tells him he could sell the
Chiefs but won’t because her accountant has advised her to
kill the Chiefs and take the tax write-off instead. Dunlop promptly
alerts the team to the truth and they decide to go out with class
in the championship. No dirty play. Alas, their reputation for thuggery
proceeds them and the opposing team is ready to rumble. The game
is a disaster of fighting and an unexpected striptease.
doesn’t hide its melancholy. The rinks and the cocktail lounges
belong to Nixon’s America in its twilight, muddling through
Carter’s ineptitude, waiting for Reagan to show the way to
the shining city on the hill where the sixties were just a bad dream
and the seventies a sad nightmare.
refuses to hang up skates because he knows what awaits him when
he does. He refuses for the sake of refusing. And sometimes that’s
enough. Especially now.
Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at the
University of Detroit Mercy.