Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Hoop Dreams

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hoop Dreams

The other night, in composing my Shoulda Won the Oscar list, I selected Hoop Dreams as a kind of compromise for 1994, while my head suggested Pulp Fiction and my heart Forrest Gump. Actually, Hoop Dreams probably is the best picture of the year, appealing to both head and heart, and gut too (feel free to throw the liver in for good measure). Hoop Dreams' great gift is specificity which, when done correctly, opens out to infinite possibilities. Through the narrow focus on two kids trying to use basketball as their ticket out of Chicago's inner city, we come to a greater understanding of African-American communities, sports as business, family life, the American economic structure and the way it affects individual lives, the power of the media, and all the intersections thereof. And none of this is conveyed with voice-of-God narration (a neutral voiceover pops up once in a while to give us crucial information before going into hiding again), an overabundance of talking-head interviews, or stylized, finger-pointing editing.


Indeed, if the film could be criticized for anything, it would probably be the way it buries its style, and almost allows us to feel we're there with the "characters." This is not a reflexive documentary. That this is also Hoop Dreams' greatest strength, its path to empathy, immersion, and artfulness, completely mitigates any flaws in its hidden-hand approach, yet this approach is still interesting to consider. What we see, as in any documentary, is only the tip of the iceberg: partly because so much footage was shot and cut out (250 hours according to some sources), partly because there was so much that the camera wasn't there for, and also because even if a camera had followed these boys around for every moment of their waking lives we could never get entirely inside their head or completely understand the circumstances that shape them.

Nonetheless, there are certain things documentary filmmakers can do to remind audiences of their subjectivity and limited material, and Hoop Dreams rejects the more overt approaches. The role that the filmmakers play in their subjects' lives is hardly examined - rarely do people address the camera or acknowledge its presence. So we find ourselves thinking how lonely Arthur Agee looks on his long trek to the private school in the suburbs (forgetting that there's at least a small crew there to keep him company), or sympathizing with William Gates as he weeps after losing a vital game (instead of becoming irritated at the camera for zooming in on his agony or ourselves for our voyeuristic impulse to see everything).

Furthermore, the filmmakers seem to have played an active role in the lives of those they were documenting (how could they not in five years of shooting) - without stating such onscreen. (A rare exception is when someone behind the camera asks Arthur to read his school essay and he jokes around with them, breaking the fourth wall. Yes, there's a fourth wall in Hoop Dreams). According to an interview he gave to the World Socialist Web Site (or some affiliate thereof), filmmaker Frederic Marx admits, "We were not documentarians who are strictly hung up on traditional objectivity...we care about these people and once we discovered, for example, that the Agees' power was off and that they didn't have the heat on, we did what we thought was the right thing to do and helped get it back on. We're not just going to stand back and let these people sit in the dark."

Admirable to be sure, but some academic cinema-purist somewhere is pulling out his hair and crying "Foul!" (hey, that's a basketball metaphor!) Actually, I would go further than saying that the hidden-hand approach is a necessary evil here, conducive to emotional involvement and the greater good, so that its drawbacks can be overlooked. In point of fact, the hidden-hand approach - in which the presence of the cameras is largely masked, and we observe as if we are a fly on the wall - is a strength, even in its fundamental dishonesty. Because when, occasionally, hints that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg and that perhaps the camera and the men behind play a role in what they're documenting do pop up, the power of Hoop Dreams only increases.

It's the power of subtlety. We become so involved in the ups and downs of the young men and their dreams (specifically directed towards the NBA, but universal in their ramifications) that when we are reminded of our own distance as spectators and that, by virtue of being in a movie that was brought to our door Arthur's and William's lives are more secure than most of their peers, the effect on our consciousness is that of the pebble thrown into the glassy pond. We are led to believe one thing, and then new revelations call everything into question. Initially, Arthur's dad speaks as if he's had troubled times, but they're in the past. Then he disappears, and reappears, but his troubles are not overemphasized. Oh, we hear about how he's done drugs, and are even given his mug shot and criminal record. We see him buying drugs at an outdoor basketball court, pretending to be visiting his son when he really came to the playground to score some dope.

But what's more powerful is when he returns and speaks of his conversion and redemption, and we see the doubt in Arthur's eyes. And later when Arthur's mom graduates from the nursing program, Arthur and his brother are there, applauding her success. Arthur's dad is notably absent. The narrator doesn't have to say a word. Later we do hear that the Agees separated, but the narration is minimal, and the effect has already been achieved.

An even more notable surprise is William's fathering of a child when he's only sixteen. We don't find out until the infant is already born and we're led to wonder what else we aren't seeing. These are subtle reminders that no documentary can take us all the way inside, or even halfway there, or even 1% or 1% of 1%. This missing material, rather than creating a gap in our involvement, increases it because it allows our imagination to make the leap and fill in that gap. Hoop Dreams feels entirely committed to its subjects and yet just removed enough so that we're not completely suckered. An ambiguity lingers: is the coach a manipulative bully or a tough-love pragmatist who's doing the best for his players? Are Arthur's dad and William's brother victims of economic oppression and social conditioning or is their own weakness and/or pride to blame? Or both? We care about these people, and yet we do not, and cannot, know them completely.

But we know ourselves, and certain aspects of their experience are universal. We can relate to Arthur visiting his old school, the one he had to leave, with an ambivalent mixture of nostalgia (the especially potent kind when only a few years have passed yet there's already so much water under the bridge), lingering bitterness, and a pride that he's made his way without them (his public school team will go further in the championships than the elite private school he couldn't afford). We can relate to the parents watching their sons go off to college, teetering between cheerful pride at their accomplishments and a gut-wrenching, fearful anticipation of all the mistakes they will make, some of them perhaps uncorrectable. We can relate to the slow deflation of dreams, taken down a notch by the slow grind of the frustrating ability to measure up to one's own ambitions and the sense that the hubris involved was completely out-of-proportion (yet clinging to the shreds of whatever part of the dreams remain).

We can relate to all these things because they are fairly universal parts of growing up and, to varying degrees, Arthur's and William's stories are our own. Hoop Dreams is that hoariest of cliches, a coming-of-age story but it's one without an end because the truth is that no one ever really comes of age, we just keep growing and looking back wistfully on what passed, trying to make sense of it all. Here that's more easily done with the help of a camera and film editing equipment, but there's still no complete conclusion, with everyone's character arcs resolved. It would be nice to put a period at the end of Hoop Dreams and tie a nice bow around it, and certainly the high school careers of its two protagonists give it a beginning, middle, and end. To know for sure that Arthur's dad has learned his lesson and will stick around, that the boys have gotten over their slacker years and will become responsible, happy adults is tempting. And we get closing titles which sort of try do this; yet too much has passed for a neat resolution to stick. We're left with uncertainty and speculation. Then again, it's perversely satisfying to hear the truth that life continues and nothing is resolved. The upshot is that you still get to hold onto your dreams, hoop or otherwise.

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