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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Poppy-Fields Movie Couch Of Fame: Hoop Dreams

Submitted by on December 5, 2014 – 11:45 AM5 Comments


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)?
    Screens: KTCA/Kartemquin

    Screens: KTCA/Kartemquin

    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.

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  • Jack says:

    I think a big part of the effectiveness of Sheila's graduation is that it comes out of NOWHERE. I don't think her attending nursing school is even hinted at earlier in the film. This might have been intentional or it might have been a happy accident, but it packs a huge punch because the viewer is forced to take a step back and really appreciate that accomplishment in light of all of the absolute shit she has had to endure up to that point in the film. All that time, all those hardships, and despite it all she was working towards this? That woman is an all-caps BADASS.

    As for the film itself, it sure doesn't tick off many of the required categories. The pedant in me wants to vote "no," but I just can't bring myself to do it. I get lost in this movie every single time it comes on.

  • I would say, for me, the "Greetings, Professor Falken" moment comes near the end, when Gates is with Coach Pignatore for the last time, and tells him he's going to major in communications, so when Pignatore comes around asking for donations, Gates will know how to say no to him. It's such an elegant "Fuck you" moment, and the movie has been building up to this, in how Gates has felt about his years at high school. Along with Sheila's graduation, it's the most awesome moment of the film.

    Btw, this was the film that made me realize the documentary branch of the Oscars sat on their brains for a living (at the time, the only one of the major documentaries they had snubbed that I had seen was "The Thin Blue Line"). Not just the fact it didn't get nominated (bullshit in itself), but also the fact people purposely went out of there way to give it a lower grade because if it was nominated, it would be a shoo-in to win.

  • Emily says:

    I thought that a key aspect of a Poppy Fields COF movie was that if you run across it on TV, you just can't turn away from it, no matter how many times you've seen it before. Hoop Dreams definitely does not pass that test for me — it is a documentary I feel like I need to emotionally prepare myself for watching, not just one I can stumble onto and enjoy.

    But maybe I just don't understand the genre as you mean it, as you've never posted the entry I submitted — Pretty Woman — which is my personal Poppy Fields ne plus ultra.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Emily, I haven't posted it because there's a backlog; we will get to it!

    And the genre as I mean it, *I* don't think I understand. That's kind of the point — yes, I have this list of criteria, but in the end, we don't really know what gives a PFM that magical quality. That's why I put up nominees and why we discuss it, because I think it's very subjective, but at the same time there are some that hit a lot of different people in the same subjective way.

    When *I* run across Hoop Dreams on TV, I can't turn away from it. It's not a knee-slapper or a fun confection, but for me, it has an ensorcelling effect. The question here (in the comments, that is) is whether that's a universal. I suspect it isn't, because I re-read true-crime compendia so the materials I return to for this familiar feeling are…not the norm. But as my dad would say, yeah, let's chat about it…beats working. :)

  • pomme de terre says:

    The father of a college buddy of mine always let his kids fill out his Oscar ballot, so since then I've taken what happens at awards season with a biiiiiig grain of salt. (I still really enjoy the Oscars, but am just much more aware of how it's not a pure celebration of art.)

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