NC Flix: Films made in N.C. & S.C.


Bull Durham

Reviewed by Allan Maurer

"Bull Durham" was one of our favorite movies before we moved to Durham.

Directed and written by Rob Shelton, it features the "poetry of sports and sex," one reviewer says and we agree..

It is, really, though, about the Zen of baseball and the Zen of sex. It's about letting go. It's about not letting go. It's about BE HERE NOW.

It's about the "Show," and how to get there. Part of what makes some stories work on a believable basis is inside information -- here, that professional baseball players call the big leagues "The Show." It reminds me of learning that C.I.A. operatives called their agency "The Company," although some D.C. insiders once told me they had never heard the term used. It doesn't matter when you're inhabiting a story. The inside dope acts as springs for your suspension of disbelief.

A whole other subtext about "The Show," underlies the films scenes, whether the "show" in the bedroom or the "show" in the ballpark, or the "show" behind the bar when Tim Robbin's character decides he'll take a swing at Crash and ends up thoroughly humiliated. Isn't that a Zen-like message, the wunderkind hero needs arrogance forcibly removed before he can succeed at his Herculean tasks? Ah, the mythic underpinnings the heroes journey take some strange twists in the modern era.

These may be the best performances ever by Kevin Costner as "Bulls" catcher Crash Davis, and Susan Sarandon as a baseball-crazed English teacher and poetic soul, Annie Savoy. Crash was a real Bulls ballplayer, who, like Costner, Shelton and Sarandon, have their names carved in bricks outside the old Bulls stadium.

"Bull Durham" is about more than baseball, though. You don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it. It's about passion for what one does, for what one loves, and for certain games everyone plays. No threesome ever had more fun and frustration all in one movie. Watching Crash and Annie miss their sexual cues early on makes me less embarassed at missing some in my own life.

We live half a block from that history-soaked old stadium. Look over the fence past that fire practice tower and you'll see our onetime tobacco warehouse, now urban loft condos. Every so often, I tried to figure out just where Annie sat the first time we see her in the stadium. The film provides an honest, if perhaps too pretty, snapshot of the Durham tobacco warehouse district, with its distinctive Romanesque architecture, woody streets, and blue collar feel.

But, as we said, we loved this movie even before we moved to Durham. The whole film is poetic and masculine at the same time, not the easiest combination in the world to pull off. Shelton did some time in the minors and knows his subject. The baseball subtext is convincing and compelling.

The sight of Tim Robbins in the outfit Annie suggests to focus his inner eye will never, ever, leave you...and I'm not sure that's a good thing. If you see some dreamy older fella sitting in the Durham Atheltic Park watching some imaginary movie, that's probably me, wishing Annie Savoy would come to the show

(Allan Maurer)
©copyright Allan Maurer 2005

The Bull Durham DVD


Bright Leaves, by Ross McElwee
by Allan Maurer

"Bright Leaves" is a subjective, often hilarious, but also touching autobiographical meditation on the allure of tobacco and its troubling legacy for the state of North Carolina and Ross McElwee's family. It's about loss and preservation. It's about family, addiction and denial.

But most of all, it's about filmmaking - home movie, documentary, and fiction filmmaking. McElwee deals with the legacy of an obscure Hollywood melodrama called "Bright Leaf," which is a type of tobacco. It starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal and he believed it was based on his great-grandfather's life.

Filmmaking is, really, the legacy of Ross McElwee's life, so it is perfectly appropriate for him to find a direct connection between his family and a Hollywood film.

"Bright Leaves" explores the notion of legacy - what one generation passes down to the next - and how this can be a particularly complicated topic when the legacy under discussion is a Southern one and is tied to tobacco. It certainly explores the McElwee legacies of family and of film, his own and the somewhat elusive connection to Hollywood's "Bright Leaves."

McElwee interviews Patricia Neal, reminding us of his first film, "Sherman's March," in which he managed to snare some footage of Burt Reynolds in Charlotte. Neal, like all aging movie starts, retains a charismatic strength on film, depsite physical fraility and the lingering effects of the stroke she had years ago.

This star-turn also has echoes of "Sherman's March," in which he waylaid Burt Reynolds as he appeared in a film in Charlotte. "We're good friends now," Ross said when he received the Distinguished Film-maker Award' from the Carolina Film & Video Festival in Greensboro in 2006.

The whole notion of film and filming and their dual nature as illusion and captured reality comes under scrutiny in "Bright Leaves," as Ross films his own son and ponders what it means to him, recalls filming his father and how the images do not keep him as alive as he had once hoped.

The nature of film and act of filming are everywhere part of the subject here and always have been in his work. Here these themes converge like rivers meeting at a waterfall. Not as any sort of academic exercise, but as the next ring in a tree's growth, as a natural expansion that encloses what went before.

McElwee's life since "Sherman's March" has been something of a cinemaemersion. This is a life diary, and "Bright Leaves" is the latest, but not likely the last entry.

"Bright Leaves" resonates for me because I've seen all of the entries, all of McElwee's films a number of times over the years. This mature and wise movie essay rang bells of memory for me, as I recalled seeing "Sherman's March" for the first time at a Charlotte film and video festival many, many years ago.

I later met three of the women featured in that film under interesting circumstances. I sat on the steps of a Charlotte townhouse and discussed poetry with Charlene Swansea. And I've walked all the territory Ross covers in "Bright Leaves," from the Duke Mansion in Charlotte to the Duke Chapel in Durham. It resonates, with me.

But I'd love this film if none of the personal elements were factors, and many others have. He's inspired an intire sub-genre of ironic, first-person documentaries, although none, perhaps, quite so first person as his own.

If wanted to do one of those quickie reviews of this film, I'd just say: I laughed a lot at this wry and wise movie. I bet you will too.

An entire generation of others follows in McElwee's filmsteps.

(Allan Maurer)

© copyright Allan Maurer 2005

Bright Leaves dvd





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