Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Hoosiers (1986)

Dir. David Anspaugh
Starring: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper, Sheb Wooley

What with Indiana being ‘the Hoosier state’ and everything, I had to order a film called Hoosiers from Lovefilm. So Imagine my confusion when something called Best Shot arrived in my letter box. In turns out that I was looking at the same film; Hoosiers was released under the name Best Shot in the UK. The distributers obviously thought no one in Britain would know what the hell a Hoosier was – and unless they are talking about the quirky ‘Starting to Worry About Ray’ pop act they may well have been right. But would it really be the title that would put people off? After all, we are talking here about a period film set in the 1950s about a uniquely American sport: basketball.

Now, I accept that basketball is probably a lot more accessible to a non-American than some of their other sports such as baseball or American football, but its modern image is a cool, urban, black hip-hop-influenced sport. Would a film about a school-team made up of white country-boys in 1951 Indiana have the same resonance? It certainly explains why I had never heard of the film – under either name.

Thankfully, Hoosiers / Best Shot sticks to the strongest of all sporting narratives – that of the Underdog ™. Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a Man With A Past ™, starts the new term as basketball coach in the small southern Indiana town of Hickory. He finds he has problems – the school only has seven players in its basketball team, one of whom promptly quits. His Unconventional Techniques ™ also meet with opposition from the sports-mad local parents and citizenry. His techniques start to slowly pay dividends, but at a crunch meeting it is decided to dispense with his services. He is only saved by the arrival of Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis), the school’s Star Player ™ who had previously refused to join the team. He says he will take part – as long as Dale remains as coach. There then follows the usual Action Montage ™ of the Hickory Huskers taking on and beating team after team. They make it to sectionals, then regionals, and then, incredibly, to the Indiana State Championships. There, of course, they have to play the Reigning Champs ™, the much bigger and better-equipped South Bend Bears. The game, of course, comes down to a Late Fightback ™ when all hope seems lost and a (literally) Last Second Winning Goal ™. Throw in a Scene-Stealing Comedy Supporting Character ™ in Dennis Hopper’s Shooter and a Token Love Interest ™ (whose feelings for Dale naturally turn From Dislike To Respect ™) and there’s your movie right there.

It's the final countdown!
(and Kylie wants her shorts back...)

So Hoosiers ain’t gonna win many prizes for originality. But it doesn’t need to. There is a saying about there being only seven original plotlines in the world, and Shakespeare having done them all already. I’m not quite sure which of his plays would be most appropriate for an Underdog Sports Movie (maybe Henry V?), but there is a reason that it has become a cliché. It’s a cliché because there is a great deal of truth in the tale. To translate into a genre I certainly would be more familiar with: think of a football club with a glorious history but little recent success. The club’s owner hires in a new manager. The manager, obviously, wants to remake the team his own way but is hampered with very few funds or resources, and a star player who cannot take to the field – say through suspension or injury. At first his team lose, and lose badly, as his new tactical thinking takes time to bed in. By the time performances are improving, less than half-way into the season, the fans and shareholders have had enough and demand his head. By this point the original owner is out of the picture (in the film Principal Cletus has a heart attack, but for the example he may have sold up). It is only the return of the team’s star player and a public vote of confidence from the dressing room that saves his job. Basically, up until that last sentence we were looking at Roy Hodgson at Liverpool or Brian Clough’s notoriously ill-fated spell at Leeds United. Put into those terms it is easy to see that even today, in a completely different sport, in a completely different country, the same themes and experiences hold true. And the story is kind-of based on a true story too – pokey little Milan High School overcame the odds to become Indiana state champs in 1954.

The strength of the film lies in its central character. Gene Hackman manages to portray Norman Dale as an almost evangelical figure. He is absolutely convinced that he, as coach, knows best – or maybe just that his team need to trust him and follow his instructions. In his first match he tells his players that they must complete four passes before the shoot. When one of his players disobeys him and actually brings Hickory back into the game by shooting from distance Dale benches him. He is actually prepared to finish off the game with just four players rather than allow a player who ignores his instructions back into the match. Little wonder that he makes enemies. In fact he does not even try to avoid making them. He meets them full on like a bull. He dispenses with the services of the stand-in coach and bans the townsfolk from practice sessions. He tells the team to concentrate on keeping possession rather than shooting. He brings in Shooter as assistant coach despite the man being a drunken bum. The attraction is clearly that – other than the school principal (Sheb Wooley) – Shooter is the only man who accepts Norm’s right to run the team his way. Rather than chipping in with how he thinks the team should play he just gives advice about Hickory’s opponents. And Norman thinks he can change him. At every step of the way Norman is convinced that he is doing what is right, and does not care about upsetting anybody in his way.

Barbara Hershey has some meat to her role as well as Myra, the teacher who wants the best for Jimmy Chitwood: in her eyes this means him concentrating on his schoolwork and winning a scholarship to college. She wants him to get the hell out of Hickory and never come back. She sees remaining in this small town as proof of a waste of potential; she counts herself among that number. “I don’t want this to be the high point of his life. I’ve seen tthem, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were 17 years old.” She could almost have been describing Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. This is part of the reason she clashes with Dale. He thinks Jimmy could win a college scholarship through his basketball. But he tells the boy that it is his potential. He can choose to use it however he pleases. “You have a special talent, a gift. Not the school’s, not the townspeople’s, not the team’s, not Myra Fleener’s, not mine. It’s yours, to do with what you please.” The move towards a romantic relationship between her and the elder Dale is signposted from the start; this is where the film does veer into cliché. The romantic subplot is so underwritten it could easily have been left out.

Dennis Hopper was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Shooter. I can’t see why. He does comedy drunk pretty well, but that’s it. I would have hoped to see a bit more truth in Hopper’s performance as a man in slavery to his addictions. And the rest of the cast are place-fillers. Of the team we have the Star Player, the Deeply-Religious One, the Short Unlikely Hero, Shooter’s Son, the One Who Quit Then Came Back, and two or three more. They have a bare handful of lines in which to establish themselves. Every character is rather one note.

And then there is the basketball itself. I can tell you that I now know more about basketball than I did previously. I now know that the game is played with five players from either side. I know now that two points are scored for each goal. But I do not understand how a team can have an odd number of points, I do not understand the rules surrounding time outs (which seem to happen every five seconds), I do not understand fouls and why a player would get two free shots on goal, and I did not understand a single word of the tactical advice coming out of Norman or Shooter’s mouth. For example: “They been pickin’ low all night. Rade, let yourself get taken out. Buddy, drop down and take his place. Close that lane!” That could have been in French for all I understand what Shooter is referring to there! But that did not hamper my enjoyment too much. I just took each moment as it came. In this segment they have to pass four times prior to shooting. In this one they have two shots on goal. In this one they have five seconds in which to score once. Broken down into those bite-sized chunks the action is comparatively easy to follow.

One final word should be made about the music. Jerry Goldsmith won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. Again, I can’t see why. The film is set in 1951; why on earth would ‘80s electro Yamaha keyboard be appropriate? He should have stuck to music more keeping to the era.

What have I learnt about Indiana?

Indiana is basketball mad. This seems to be noteworthy: even among other Americans the Hoosiers are notorious for living, eating and breathing basketball. Everyone from elderly ladies to town sheriffs are addicted to the extent that they will follow their local high school team all across the state to watch them. And it must be hurtful when the championship is won season after season by the bigger schools in the state. I can understand why Dale exhorts his team to win it for all the smaller teams that never had the chance to get to the final.

What I also got was a look at Indiana countryside: wheat fields, sugar cane, water towers and silos. Certainly in the area depicted in the film it is a rural state of close-knit small towns. And success seems to be measured in how far away from those towns you get in life. Anybody from outside that society who comes in is treated as an object of curiosity. It is assumed that they will look down on Hickory as a “hick town”.

Can we go there?

Hickory does not exist in reality. The story is, as I mentioned before, based on the true tale of Milan High School . Milan is located in south-east Indiana in Ripley County.

The film was not shot in Milan however, even though the film was entirely shot on location in Indiana. The town of New Richmond, north west of Indianapolis, was used as the principal filming location, something the town is very proud of. Signs around town proclaim is starring role. However it is not the only town cashing in on its connection to the movie. Hickory High’s gym was not in New Richmond. Those scenes were shot in Knightstown, east of Indianapolis. The 'Historic Hoosier Gym' is open for visits. Knightstown hosts the Hoosier Fall Fest every September. The other school scenes were shot in Nineveh south of Indianapolis; the school house burnt down a few years ago however.

Other key scenes were filmed in Indianapolis. Shooter’s hospital was the Wishard Memorial Hospital. And most notably, the final match was played at Butler Fieldhouse, a National Historic Landmark. It is the home of the Butler University Bulldogs, so it seems most fitting to take in a match on one’s visit.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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