Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Heart of It

by John McFetridge

 Every once in a while I get into conversations about 70s movies – there were a lot of great ones. At the time I mostly liked the disaster movies. Oh, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And Jaws was my favourite for quite a while.

But usually these 70s movie discussions are about the more, let’s say ‘noirish,’ of the decade. Now that I’m so (so, so, so) much older and looking back on those movies I have a different perspective. One movie that I first saw in the 70s when I was a teenager I thought was very funny and somewhat disposable, I have now realized is the one that really had the most to say and said it best.

And that movie is...


Yes, that Paul Newman hockey movie. The one with the Hanson Brothers and that kind of disco song, “Get back to where you started from,” and Michael Ontkean and the striptease.

Slapshot was slapstick in the best possible way.

But it was also about what was really at the heart of the 70s, that weird decade when the world went from the possibility of revolutions and social change in the 60s to the go-go, I-got-mine 80s. There was a power shift in the 70s and Slapshot got to the heart of it. And that heart is what makes it a great movie.

 “The world promised in the 1950s, a world apparently on the verge of realization in 1965 seemed like a cruel joke by 1975. Panic set in... so did the urge to seek revenge.” Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces.

And that’s Slapshot. (though I think Greil is talking about punk music.)

Released in 1977 Slapshot it tells the story of a small-town pro hockey team and its player-coach, Reggie Dunlop played by Paul Newman.

It gets an 87% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, Deadspin says it’s, “The Only Honest Sports Movie,” Bleacher Report has written its, “Five Reasons Why Slapshot is the Greatest Sports Film of All Time,” and ESPN named it the #5 Best Sports Movie of All Time. And yet, from what I can see, the thing that happens in Slapshot that makes it so great, the thing that sets everything in motion and makes it all possible (necessary, really), almost never gets mentioned.

The plant closes down. Thousands of workers are laid off.

It happens in the background – literally. Reggie Dunlop and Ned Braydon are walking by and Ned says, “What’s going to happen to all these guys when the plant shuts down,” and Reggie says, “Aw, they’re not gonna shut it down, they’re just jerking them around, negotiating.” But they’re not negotiating, of course, they don’t negotiate with the workers, it’s as if the citizens of the town have somehow become terrorists.

From there the team is going to fold.

And that’s why the GM (another great performance in a Paul Newman movie by Strother Martin) brings in the Hanson Brothers – they’re cheap. That’s the first thing Paul Newman says when he confronts Martin, “You cheap bastard.” Martin says, “I got a good deal on those boys.” And then he sets out to sell the bus, the massage table and whatever else isn’t nailed down.

The movie is funny, of course, the Hansons hit the ice and it’s hilarious. But underneath all the slapstick and one-liners there’s a very real heart. Being ripped out of the town.

Sure, Reggie Dunlop tries to save the team somehow, maybe someone will buy it and move it to Florida, but the team owner tells him her accountant has advised her that it’s better for her if the team just folds.

Which is probably what the accountants have told the plant’s shareholders. It’s not that they aren’t making money, but they could make even more if...

Another funny part of Slapshot is the French Canadian goalie. His explanation of penalties in the opening scene is one of my all-time favourite movie moments, especially when he says that if you get a penlaty for doing something, “only a stupid English pig with no brain,” would do, you have to, “go to the box, feel shame for two minute and then you go free.” That’s just funny.

But the best scene with the French goalie is when Reggie sends him to try and find out who owns the team. The joke is he doesn’t pronounce the ‘s’ on ‘owns,’ but the real issue in that scene is that the players don’t know who own ("owns, owns") the team. As Reggie Dunlop says, “The corporation owns, the team. What do you care, you get your cheque.”

Likely the guys working in the plant don’t know who owns it, either. The era of the local owner is gone by the 70s, now it’s just, “the corporation.”

In his desperate attempt to save the team, save what he sees as the heart of the city, Reggie sells it out. It stops being about hockey, about honest competition or sport or teamwork and it becomes a circus – no, a sideshow. The players become the classic sideshow freaks, the depression era geek-show (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geek_show). It’s player-against-player, cheered on by the screaming fans.

“Dave’s a killer.”

“Dave’s a mess.”

Dunlop, of course, fails and the team will fold. Oh, he succeeds personally, he gets a job with a team at a higher level and promises to, “bring up all my guys,” when he gets there. But we know he won’t be able to bring up many guys and we know he’ll fail on the bigger stage. Deep down, Reggie is too nice a guy, not selfish enough. Oh sure, he’s desperate, but that won’t be enough – and that’s what Slapshot is really about and why it’s so good.

The 1970s were the end for guys like Reggie Dunlop and for all the guys who worked in plants like the one in the movie. They lost.

Guys like that always lose.

Oh sure, they won a few battles in the 30s and then they won WWII (I’ve seen Band of Brothers) and they strutted around for a while in the 50s – but it didn’t last.

We can sure see it in the movies – Taxi Driver, Blue Collar, Rocky (I’m told there were more Rocky movies in the 80s but I refuse to believe that), The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, Five Easy Pieces, Vanishing Point, Saturday Night Fever  -- not a single It’s a Wonderful Life in the decade. Until Star Wars. The good guys win in Star Wars. Of course, it’s a fantasy that takes place a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... (and it reinstates a monarchy, doesn’t it?)

It looks to me like the 70s was when ‘divide and conquer’ became the main theme. All those great 70s movies are about loners who lose. All institutions (especially ones in which people have a vote like government and unions) are bad and need to be made small and have as little influence as possible.

Is this what we’re still seeing in so much crime fiction these days? Loners who lose?


Dana King said...

SLAPSHOT was filmed in Johnstown PA, about 65 miles east of Pittsburgh. I was in college at Indiana University of Pennsylvania when it was made, about 25 miles away. A good friend of mine appears in a couple of crowd scenes.

You're right. Few movies captured how our economy was falling apart in the 70s as well as SLAPSHOT. The town I grew up in was about the same, but not big enough to have a hockey team.

The sad part is, while Pittsburgh converted to a medical/financial/education economy and has done very well, those smaller towns never really recovered. I go home to see my parents these days and things look abut the same as when I left for the army, just different signs on the buildings.

No one ever got rich in these towns, but people made good working/middle class livings. Now they operate half a notch above JUSTIFIED, the pilot for which was filmed in Kittanning PA, about 20 miles north of my hometown.

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, Dana, it's a story that has been repeated all over the rust belt. I guess it's tough to tell that kind of story without being really depressing, so good on Slapshot for making it funny. I guess...

Jay Stringer said...

The 80's are often called the GREED decade. But I think it was something else.

I think the divide and conquer you talk of from the 70's is alive and well in these harsh economic times, with the 'working poor' being turned against each other. But another trick worked in the 80's. It was the decade of distraction. Misdirection.

People in the 70's began to realise they were getting the shaft. We can't have that. They might do something about it. The 80's saw a sleight of hand that swapped "aspiration" for "mortgages." Credit, credit, credit.

A certain evil woman over my side of the pond convinced people in social housing that what they really wanted -what was a real sign of success- was to buy the social housing for themselves. Except, nobody had the money for that, what they were doing was taking out mortgages by the thousands. High interest credit cards that would last for 25 years and which could be revoked any time you missed a payment- so don't miss a day at work.

Credit. Shiny things. Everybody got to own STUFF, and they liked it. Because STUFF was a sign of success. Even if you didn't really own it. Even if you never really would. Or if, by the time you'd paid off your 25k house, you'd paid 75k for the honour.

Building an economy on credit was great in the short term because it distracted everybody from reality. But it was also a plan with a built-in life span. When that distraction went away, it was time to divide and conquer again.

I think it was around this time, as the 70's reality shifted to 80's distraction, that we saw social writing drift off the "mainstream" bookshelves and into noir, hardboiled and crime.

For a film like SLAPSHOT to be made now, it has to be dressed up as a crime film.

Dana King said...

I'm late checking back here, but wanted to be sure to say Jay is dead on with his comment.