I recently watched five documentaries online, and all of them were on athletics and or violence in American life. They were The Battered Bastards Of Baseball, Muhammad And Larry, When The Garden Was Eden, Whitey: United States Of America vs. James J. Bulger, and Carl Panzram: The Spirit Of Hatred And Vengeance.
The first of the documentaries was one of those feel good sort of docs on a forgotten aspect of sports Americana, and one with a tie-in to a celebrity: actor Kurt Russell, whose journeyman actor father, Bing Russell, after a long run as a background character on the television western Bonanza, and many other film roles, decided to start an independent A league baseball team (unaffiliated with any major league farm system) in Portland, Oregon, in the Northwest League, after the AAA Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers decamped , due to little support.
The team was the Portland Mavericks, and they played five seasons (1973-77) in the NWL, with a bunch of colorful characters and castoffs (most notable former New York Yankee Jim Bouton, after he was blackballed by the Major Leagues for writing his tell all memoir, Ball Four. It’s a standard tale, a cut and paste documentary of adult Bad News Bears who never were able to win a league title because the major league farm systems would always shuffle their better prospects to the NWL to make sure the Mavericks would never win the title. The film, naturally, ends with a whatever happened to? Epilogue, and a hagiography of Bing Russell, who won a lawsuit against the PCL when they decided to snatch away the Portland territory the Mavs had revitalized, due to baseball’s anti-trust exemptions. Nonetheless, Russell won a $206,000 damage award, and son Kurt seems to relish his father’s antics more than anything he accomplished in his own career.
The 2014 film’s title- The Battered Bastards Of Baseball- is an obvious play off of recent works of fiction that use the ter Bastard in their titles, and that title belies the utter banality of the film’s techniques, even if it does tell a feel good tale. Other than Kurt Russell, and the Maverick players, the film lets us know future Hollywood director Todd Field was a batboy, and Bing Russell’s grandsons, Chapman and Maclain Way, are billed as the co-directors. Rumor has it that director Field has been hired to direct a fictive feature film version of the tale.
At a crisp hour and a quarter in length, the film’s lack of substance can be nicely overlooked, as can the claims that there never was nor ever will be a minor league team like the Mavs. In fact, there was a decades old Major League tradition of maverick owners, as well as other minor league teams, just as colorful, and just as memorable, Nonetheless, the film aims low enough and succeeds in hurdling any limbo bar thus set.
An even crisper film is the 52 minute 2009 documentary Muhammad And Larry, part of the 30 For 30 series from ESPN. Unfortunately, it’s yet another hagiography of the former Cassius Clay; this time looking at his penultimate fight against his former sparring partner turned succeeding champion, Larry Holmes. The film spends little time on the bland Holmes, whose multi-year run as the best heavyweight in the worldwas started with a bad decision against Ali killer, Ken Norton, and maintained with many a Bum Of The Month fight. Despite this, Holmes seems to have been a nice guy, if all but forgotten today.
But the film wields a heavily ground ax for Ali, the main bag boy for the Mafia infested sport of professional boxing in the 1960s and 1970s, whose career was tainted with fixed fights and obvious ‘decisions’ in his favor against less charismatic fighters who beat Ali obviously, and often badly. This film’s thesis is that Holmes should never have fought the old and decrepit Ali, whose Parkinson’s Disease was just kicking in at this time. Directed by Albert Maysles (of Maysles Brothers fame) and Bradley Kaplan. Not only does the film blame everyone BUT Ali for the beating he suffered, but it exculpates Ali for abusing prescription drugs, as if he had no choice. At every turn where the film can shift blame from the egomaniacal Ali for his downfall and post-boxing ills, it does.
Thus, the film becomes that worst sort of ‘documentary’- an agitprop film, and the fact that Ali was old, fat, and lost all his boxing skills due to brain damage, well- that’s just ignored because, well, Muhammad Ali was Superman- or, he fought him once; well, in a comic book; well- comic books are not about reality, which, I guess, makes them about as factual as this film.
One wonders why such a hollow and phony figure as Ali is revered today, when so much of his life, past, and career was mired in the dark underbelly or organized crime’s grip on his sport? Yes, Ali changed religions, was a pariah for being against the Vietnam War, but, can no filmmaker see the totality of the man? It seems that a real cinematic exploration into Ali’s life and dark side will have to wait until the man is dead. Until that time, we fans of fight and film are going to be stuck with silly pabulum such as this.
A much better documentary than the first two, although it strikes no new cinematic ground, is another film from ESPN’s 30 For 30 vault. It is When The Garden Was Eden. A film that documents the 198-73 New York Knicks pro basketball teams that went to three NBA Finals, and won two of them. The film charts the rise of the Knicks out from under the shadows of the league’s two most successful franchise, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 75 minute long 2014 film, which starts with the rise of former Knick back up player cum Knicks President, Phil Jackson (who coached the Lakers and Chicago Bulls to 11 NBA titles), in this season with the Knicks’ return to respectability with the emergence of super rookie Kristaps Porzingis, is a solid rendering of how Madison Square Garden finally became the basketball center of the world for a few years, after decades of futility before, with more to come. There are the requisite interviews with former players, and a charting of the building of the new Madison Square Garden’s coincidence with the rise of the Knicks under coach Red Holzman, but the film shines most by charting the political circumstances of the era, and how the Knicks’ selfless approach and team basketball drew such across the board fan recognition down to this day as an exemplar of the way team sports should be played. The team, in fact, that seems to be the spiritual successors of those old Knicks teams are the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
The film is directed by well known character actor Michael Rapaport, and the evidence for how influential that team was is shown in the fact that every single member of that first championship team (1969-70)wrote a memoir about himself. By contrast, the more talented iteration of the team, three seasons later, is said to have won their title in the middle of the night, with barely anyone caring. Of course, first titles are always the sweetest, and especially so, given the legendary return from injury by Knick center and league MVP, Willis Reed, in Game 7 against the Lakers. We also get insights into Knicks stars like Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier, Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe, and many others- the most interesting being the mnemonically gifted Knicks swingman, Jerry Lucas, although the most fun interviewee is backup Knicks player, Dean ‘The Dream’ Meminger.
No, When The Garden Was Eden breaks no new ground in the documentary genre, but it does what t does well, which is good enough.
Joe Berlinger’s 2014, 107 minute long 130 minute film on gangster Whitey Bulger, Whitey: United States Of America vs. James J. Bulger, likewise breaks no new ground, in neither the documentary nor crime documentary subgenre, but, unlike When The Garden Was Eden, it’s overly long, tedious, and doesn’t seem to know whether it sides with a psychopathic killer or against him, as victim of an even more corrupt FBI system that coddled him for decades, in return for his ratting out his enemies and friends.
Bulger was the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, yet the film seems to worship at his altar, as well. We get a long, convoluted story, with a cast of shady characters, all of whom are clearly lying to exculpate themselves for posterity, and whose main aim seems to be to equate Bulger with other legendary crime figures, including noting that he was, along with Osama bin Laden, for a while, the Most Wanted Man In America, when he spent years on the run from Law Enforcement, after fleeing his native Boston, where he ran an Irish gang of killers called The Winter Hill Gang. The film seems to posit Bulger as a ‘good’ psychopath who didn’t murder women (although he clearly did) and didn’t rat on his cohorts (although he clearly did, but to what end? The film is a massive accumulation of facts and factoids with nothing to come of them.
Well, that’s not really so, I guess, since Whitey: United States Of America vs. James J. Bulger is as biased a film as Muhammad And Larry, and goes to as great a set of pains to shill for Bulger as the Ali film does for Ali. We even get to hear Bulger on the phone, clearly lying his way through the claims against him. That the film is clearly biased, yet tries to portray itself as objective (just as when so called reporters think it’s fair to give Creationists equal time with Evolutionists in a science’ debate), the film totally undercuts any claims to journalism.
There are too many speakers, too many subplots, and too many years covered for the viewer to get an real in depth portrayal of Bulger. The man comes off as mostly a cipher that others want to fill, yet these others are just as big a cipher as Bulger, ultimately, and mostly just as noxious and self-serving. Whitey: United States Of America vs. James J. Bulger is not a terrible film, but it is not a good one, and not even close. Don’t wated over two hours on it.
A more successful crime documentary is the 2011 film from director John Borowski, Carl Panzram: The Spirit Of Hatred And Vengeance. The 80 minute film moves quickly and details the boastful serial killer from the Jazz Age, who seemed to portray himself as a tough guy in the later Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski mode, but who may have been more in line with the possible serial killer and/or possible mere braggart, Henry Lee Lucas.
Effective, albeit a little overdone, is the voicing of Panzram (John DiMaggio) reading from letters written to his Washington, D.C. prison guard friend, Henry Lesser (who later wrote a biography of Panzram), a man that Panzram claimed was ‘the only man that I did not want to viciously kill.’
Foretelling the exculpatory tactics used by later killers and psychopaths, Panzram claimed that physical and sexual abuse made him kill 21 men (although the numbers varied in each retelling, rob and beat thousands of people, and sodomize over a thousand males. Panzram eventually hung for murdering a supposedly abusive prison guard in another prison, and his infamous last words were: ‘Hurry up, you Hoosier bastard. I could kill twelve men while you’re fucking around.’ And, yes, Panzram said ‘fucking,’ despite the film’s stating he said ‘fooling.’
Having a long interest in criminology, Panzram has always been one of the more interesting mass murderers. He seemed very intelligent but utterly lacking in self-governance. In many ways, there’s an eerie similarity in the abusive pasts of Panzram and bad folk artist, Henry Darger, but whereas Darger’s sexual perversions were all turned inward, Panzram’s were turned the other direction, and laced with rage. Borowski did other docs on American mass murderers, Henry Mudgett and Albert Fish, and he seems to specialize in finding deviants who are somehow not off the rack, in comparison to many other, more famed, killers.
Lesser is the person hagiographized by the film, and, although overdone, Panzram’s papers, which I’ve read portion sof, are far more insightful than the ramblings of the Unabomber, or Timothy McVeigh, or the latest spree killers, and more so they give an early indication of the sort of criminal that would emerge later in the 20th Century, as Panzram was executed in 1930, shy of his fortieth birthday.
Overall, while Carl Panzram: The Spirit Of Hatred And Vengeance is not a landmark film in its genre, it is well above most of the crime docudramas that have been released this century.
Overall, none of the five films is great, but the two best are When The Garden Was Eden and Carl Panzram: The Spirit Of Hatred And Vengeance. Both provide insight all too often absent in documentaries, and both pick excellent subjects that exemplify the most interesting aspects of sports and violence.
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