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This week:
Friday Night Lights

Filthy says:
"Brings Back Bad Fucking Memories, Man.

Watching Friday Night Lights brought back a lot of horrible memories for me. It's the story of the ultra-competitive world of Texas high school football and the importance put on winning, at the cost of dignity, respect and education. And, if I can be serious for once, this is a world I know all too well. I know how dehumanized a kid can feel when the pressure to win is heaped on his shoulders. I'm too familiar with the misery and stress associated with being expected to prop up the egos of the losers in your town, and to represent an entire community's pride.

It's really fucking hard. Well, anyway, that's what I remember from reading Matt Christopher's "Catcher With a Glass Arm" and "Touchdown for Tommy." Shit, those were great books with valuable lessons. The kind that, along with certain letters in Penthouse Forum and a couple knock-knock jokes, prepare you for life better than any teacher who makes fun of your homemade pants. It made a kid like me think I was right in the middle of the action. I no longer felt like a boy afraid to leave his bedroom or suit up for sports because I didn't want to be naked in a locker room. Suddenly, I was in a uniform, a football player afraid to tackle and a catcher afraid to throw.

Other than that, my own sports experiences are limited to getting hit in the nuts while playing third in Little League, then throwing my glove at the umpire in anger. When he wouldn't give it back my career was over. I also played flag football, but I never went after the flag; I tried to get the whole pants. And those were from my own teammates, while we were on the sideline. That's not to say I'm not competitive. I am, very much so. But nothing sucks more than being competitive and shitty. The logical thing to do if you hate losing is never play.

My only other competitive experience was joining the high school's Academic Decathlon team. Not voluntarily, really. It was instead of being expelled for stealing library books. The Academic Decathlon was a wits-matching competition against other high schools and each school had to have a mix of A, B and C students on its team. So, for the As the teachers picked the best the school had, for the Bs they picked underachievers, and for Cs like me they picked complete and total lazy fuckups, thinking, "He can't possibly be that stupid." That's where I came in. Not only was I a lazy fuckup, but they could extort me into playing. I'm not sure what the Decathlon organizer's reasoning was behind having C students compete. They thought we loved being mediocre so much we wanted to compete to prove who was most mediocre?

That one experience in the spotlight, answering trigonometry questions in front of hundreds of eggheaded kids in some other schools' gymnasium gives me untold insight into the pressure of high school competition. Confusing sine and cosine while your drunken aeronautics engineer father yells from the bleachers that if I were in charge our astronauts would all be dead is heartbreaking and embarrassing. Climbing into the stands and wrestling him is even more so. Losing the brawl and falling out of the bleachers is worse yet. Then having to ask him for a ride home is the pits, man. There is nothing warm or humane about losing the spelling portion by points and then having your teacher challenge the judges. Seeing the word "igneous" spur a riot that leaves three potential valedictorians in the hospital with severe slap bruises and chunks of scalp ripped off their skulls is enough to make a kid wish he weren't such a disappointment to everyone.

So, I identify with the kids of Friday Night Lights who live in a small, dirty Texas town where the expectation is to win the state football championship, and anything less is unacceptable. The kids are expected to play football, to love it and to use it as their ticket out of a shitty town. The town elders, with their own lives long gone to hell, have nothing to obsess over except football, and they crank the pressure up.

Billy Bob Thornton plays a well-compensated coach directing a team with a superstar running back toward the state finals. Of course, the star (Derek Luke) tears up his knee during the first game. The misfits and secondary players have to step up and fill in. In typical sports story fashion, the insecure quarterback (Lucas Black) with the sick mom has to prove his mettle. So does the scaredy-pants second-string running back and a boy whose father was once a football star and now angrily drinks his way through life. Through grit and determination, they make it to the State Championship game, where they go up against a group of giants from the big city of Dallas. I won't give away the ending, because I thought the movie was alright. But, I will say that as hard as it tries to be different Friday Night Lights falls back on the same old sports story cliches.

There's only one sports movie I've ever seen that has a perfect ending. That's The Bad News Bears. Every other one that ends with a BIG game reeks of melodrama more than authenticity. Friday Night Lights is no exception. It's shot well, and looks good. The sports scenes mostly look genuine, except for the sheer volume of unrealistically close plays and spectacular tackles. The main problem is that for a movie that wants to show us how fucked up a town obsessed with football is, it sure as hell spends a lot of time on the field. And, a hell of a lot of bad is remedied there, too. I walked away with the feeling that, okay, I guess the movie really does think football is important. Either that, or the director, Peter Berg, is afraid to tell a human story and thinks filming lots of long bombs easier and more gratifying.

When it does get human, Friday Night Lights goes for easy melodrama. Every little story wraps up neatly. One boy's abusive, alcoholic father is suddenly transformed into a nice, sensitive guy. The kids aren't harmed by the pressure put on them, they just mope. And we even get a cheesy coda about the stars at the end. There are hints at what the story could be; Odessa is dying, the people are drinking themselves to death. But every time one of these interesting things might come up, it's back to the field.

One important thing that gets set up and never played out is Thornton's role as coach. We're supposed to root for him as a family man, a guy feeling the downward pressure of the community. We're supposed to sympathize with him facing the possibility of moving every year when his team doesn't win. Yet, he takes a huge salary for a high-school football coach, and implicit in that is success. And he comes back the year after this story. He is sketched so stoically and minimally that his perspective on the damage parents do to kids is worthless. If his character also thinks football is this important, fuck him. He deserves to lose every game. The movie could have explored what it's like to live in Odessa, but it pussed out.

Friday Night Lights ain't a bad movie, it's just not very deep. I'll give it Three Fingers. I wish we could have seen more of the long-term effects of this competitive nature, though. Maybe just so I'd understand all the ways the Academic Decathlon is responsible for me being the failure I am today. It's sure would be nice to have something to blame.

Oh, and by the way, I had my interview at Glee's Hallmark for their job stocking cards and knick-knacks for the holiday season. I think the job's in the bag, but I'll let you know for sure next week.


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Jim Ferguson of KGUN TV

Taxi is "Explosive fun! You'll love the ride!"

Filthy's Reading
Robertson Davies - The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks

Listening to
Modest Mouse - The Lonesome Crowded West


Bad News Bears