Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Bull Durham (1988)

Dir. Ron Shelton
Starring: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson 

Chance turns on the slightest things. Nowhere is this more true than in sports. What makes a great sports player? Genetic freak, like Usain Bolt? An iron will and determination to win, like Terry Butcher? Years and years of honing one’s skill? The random element: the old ‘one in off the backside’ that strikers need to rediscover their form? A gust of wind, a bobble on the green, a slip on wet grass: all these can make or break a chance. It is no surprise that sportsmen are almost perversely superstitious. 

In Bull Durham we meet a struggling minor league baseball team called the Durham Bulls. They have their superstitions. Jimmy prays before every game. Jose rubs his bat with a chicken bone crucifix, and when his girlfriend puts a curse on his glove he cannot catch a single ball. And then there is Annie (Susan Sarandon). She is a woman looking for something to believe in. After going through every religion available she has finally settled on her true calling: “the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball”. She lights candles for the saints of long gone players. And every year she picks a Bulls player to be her lover. That player always has the best season of his life. And this season she has hers eyes fixed on cocky bowler Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a gobby punk with a “million dollar arm” who needs to learn control. She gives him sensible advice (bending his back), not so sensible advice (breathing through his third eyelid) and a mixture of the two (wearing her suspender belt to remind hum to not pull his hips out). When he does hit a rich vein of form he resolves to not do anything to upset it. And this, to Annie’s increasing frustration, includes sleeping with her. 

There is one other person trying to hone LaLoosh. Laloosh likes to be called ‘Nuke’. ‘Crash’ Davis (Kevin Costner) calls him ‘Meat’. Crash is a Minor League veteran, moving wherever the next contract is. He does not have the God-given gifts that Nuke does, but he is canny and can read the game like no one else. Like Annie he is a thinker and a scholar of baseball. He has been brought in to tutor Nuke and make him ready for his move up to “The Show” (the Majors). It is his reading of the game that helps Nuke to demolish batsman after batsman with contemptuous ease, once he has trained him to not overthink. It is not a role that Crash particularly enjoys. He once played in the Majors himself, for “the 21 greatest days of my life”. And now his career is waning. He compares himself to a stable pony, a racehorse being put out to stud. His goal is to help Nuke achieve a career in the Majors, something that he himself never managed. 

Crash combines brains with ingenuity. He does not believe in superstitions. Baseball to him is, in the words of the team coach (Trey Wilson), “a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.” In the middle of a terrible losing streak some of the other Bulls wish that the next game would be rained off to give them a chance to regroup. Crash literally brings the rain – he breaks into the baseball stadium and turns the sprinklers on. He doesn’t wish and pray and hope: he takes action. This is why he walks away when Annie invites both him and LaLoosh back to her house to “try out” for the role of her favoured player for this season. He has, he tells her, never tried out for anything. His record speaks for itself, even if he doesn’t boast that he is just six home runs away from the Minor League record. He has reached the stage in his career when he is drafted in to fix a temporary deficiency, but then will have to make way for the next bright young talent the bosses want to develop (and sell on at a profit to a bigger club). It is a lonely life, and he and Annie are kindred spirits.  
He couldn't believe Crash had fallen for the old
'black eye telescope' prank again...
This is Costner’s fourth appearance this year. He cycled in American Flyers, he fought crime in The Untouchables, and he was in love with baseball in Field of Dreams. In Bull Durham he is in love with baseball again; the problem is, baseball doesn’t love him back. Susan Sarandon’s groupie is a million years away from her chaste Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. This is Tim Robbins’ first appearance however – opposite his future wife Sarandon, whom he first met here – and it is probably his mouthy and unworthy star player that will stick longest in the memory. Not least for his own interior monologues. I love his thoughts about wearing the suspender belt, which turn from finding it actually kinda sexy, to defensively denying to himself that this makes him queer. 

Bull Durham is not your average sports movie and this makes it quite interesting. Usually the formula, as in Best Shot, is that a raggle taggle bunch of underdogs are taken all the way to the Final by a coach with unorthodox techniques. Annie certainly has the unorthodox techniques, but she is not the coach. She is merely a groupie. But we do not get the overview of the Bulls’ season. They play poorly then – when Nuke gets into his groove – they start to play really well. But the story finishes before the end of the season. LaLoosh gets his call up to the Majors. His work done, Crash is released. This gives the film a melancholic air. The undeserving shit gets the prize (as Annie says, “the world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness”), and our hero rides off into the sunset. Though he does return for a completely unnecessary five minute sex scene. Frankly it could have been longer (the film, not the unnecessary sex scene). I feel like we barely got started with the love triangle. I would have liked to have seen more of the Bulls’ season. And I would have liked to have worked out what the difference was between a fast ball, a curve ball and a break ball, because they all looked the same to me. 

What have I learnt about North Carolina?
The baseball scene isn’t the most glamorous in the world. Teams take part in the Carolina League. So presumably when Americans talk about the ‘Minor Leagues’ these are not the equivalent of English football leagues with a vertical structure across the nation, but a horizontal distribution of many different regionally-based leagues. In the minor leagues the dressing rooms are cold and bare, and the manager has little more than a desk, a chair and a calendar. They carry their own bags on to the team bus. They can, however, afford Porsches – well, those whom the Majors have their eye on, anyway. The lower-league teams seem to be feeder clubs for the larger ones. 

Baseball is watched by all generations. Games are spiced up by other forms of entertainment – dancers, money dropped from helicopters, free steaks if you hit an advertising hoarding etc.  

Can we go there?
Not only are the locations featured genuine, but so too are the teams. The Durham Bulls really exist, and they did play their home games at the stadium shown in the film, the Durham Athletic Park, on Morris Street in central Durham. Sadly the Bulls moved out in 1994. That local area is their stomping ground. Annie’s house was 911 N Mangum Street in Durham. Crash and Ebby almost come to blows in the alleyway outside Mitch’s Tavern at 2426 Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. The bar still has the glass door broken by LaLoosh. Another fight occurs in the Green Room pool hall in Durham (although the pool hall is now across the street from where it was at the time of filming). After being released Crash walks by the old Liggett and Myers Tobacco warehouses between Duke, Gregson and Main Streets. 

On their tours around North Carolina they visit the Burlington Athletic Stadium and the Greensboro World War Memorial Stadium. Crash later finds a place with the Asheville Tourists. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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