The Poppy-Fields Movie Couch Of Fame: Hoop Dreams
The docu classic got jobbed by Oscar 20 years ago. Will it get a PFM Couch Of Fame cushion?
I considered nominating a lesser-known and far more difficult Steve James joint, Stevie, this time around, because both Stevie and Hoop Dreams raise key questions about what, exactly, is the source of the opiates in a poppy-fields movie. Our standard list of criteria is helpful, in its way, and reflects the elements most PFMs seem to share…but there's a magic, a poppier-than-the-sum-of-its-parts-ness, that I'm afraid we just can't predict, and it's that aspect of it I like discussing the best when it's nomination time.
I can predict that, if you've even seen Stevie, you'll likely think I'm bonkers for considering it for a nom; I put it up for Cinemarch Madness, so: not a giggle-fest. But for a documentary nerd like myself, something about it resonates on that PFM level: the way it's built, the slow reveals, the obvious compassion of a filmmaker who's pointedly not at an objective distance from the eponymous subject because that's the point of the film.
Hoop Dreams is another story — a very long, very interesting story that I can never not watch when it comes on Sundance at like 1 AM. Agee's amazing late-eighties styles alone! Let's get into it.
- lengthy? And how. Official runtime is 170 minutes; on TV it's generally four hours minimum.
- familiar/frequent? Not really, though as we begin "awards season" (eye-roll), you'll start to see it a bit more often on nets like Sundance and Ovation as part of "overlooked classics" programming blocks.
- classic/award-winner? It's considered a classic now — because the Academy declined to nominate it, and Siskel and Ebert got behind it and pushed like demons. The film is probably the ne plus ultra of Oscar's maddening fuck-ups.
- "Greetings, Professor Falken" (big payoff/long-shot victory a la WarGames)?
Sort of? It's non-fiction, so I don't know that we can use this structural benchmark, but the film starts out with Gates as the obvious pony to bet; in the end, after his various injury setbacks and Agee's public-school team's happy rise to regional prominence (not to mention his parents' overcoming of myriad financial and substance obstacles; the bad-ass Sheila Agee is the star of this movie, IMO), it's Agee who's a "winner." But the build is really slow; the movie covers years. So, n/a, strictly speaking.
- "Wanna have a catch?" (Pavlovian tear-jerk; anything with dads opens the ducts for this guy)? A few moments stir up the dust — like the one pictured above in which the boys reunite and Gates is overcome with emotion; Sheila's graduation is a great one too — but no single slam-dunk. (So to speak.)
- quote-fest? It contains a handful of good quotations, but again, it's not that kind of a movie.
- caper-ish or -adjacent camaraderie? Not in the sense we usually mean it, no, but I'd like to take a moment to hat-tip Arthur and Shannon bugging out in the kitchen their fast-food job. Even in the parts of the film when he's physically little, Arthur has a grown presence — it's not sombriety (and PS, why isn't that a word? Let's work on that, everyone), but there's a guardedness beyond his years at times. In that scene, he's just enjoying his friend and music and being a boy.
- "forget you, melon farmer" (you own it, but will still watch bowdlerized TV verzh) The networks that air Hoop Dreams don't tend to cut it up or bleep it, but I do own it and I will settle in with a canteen and some gorp if I find it on cable anyway.
Based on the metrics above, Hoop Dreams fails as a Poppy-Fields Movie — but for me, somehow, it's a gold standard of the genre, because it's a gold standard of documentary filmmaking. It's a good story, one that kept changing, about real people, ditto, and it asked a lot of questions of those people, of the story it thought it had, and of its own format. What do expectations do to talented children, generally and specific to shooting them for a docu? How much of success in life is the drive, and how much is the downshift, the recalculation? Does the definition of "documentary" insist on objectivity, or do the best documentaries braid passionate involvement into their storytelling? (That last one's a cinch, for me — op. cit. Dear Zachary, Stevie, and Herzog's non-fiction work.)
I don't even like basketball, and I love Hoop Dreams. I hope y'all agree with me and nothing-but-net this nomination for the Couch Of Fame.
The Poppy-Fields Movie Couch Of Fame is here. To nominate your own PFM, email bunting at tomatonation dot com with a rundown of the criteria and your argument for why it deserves a cushion. If I use your entry, free loot shall be thine.
Tags: Arthur Agee Dear Zachary documentarian boyfriends documentaries Gene Siskel Hoop Dreams Kartemquin Films movies poppy-fields movies Roger Ebert Sheila Agee Steve James Stevie Werner Herzog William Gates