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Hoop Dreams: The Criterion Collection
But hoop dreams are also indicative of their name. By its very nature, any circle is insular, beginning and ending at the same point in an elliptical, continuous fashion. And a hoop, like any band or ring, is empty in the middle. Usually it is waiting to be filled up with ambition, drive, courage and challenge. But sometimes, the center is just a big, dark void, a vacant arena where dreams die and hopes fizzle and fade. Naturally, this makes hoop dreams that much more dangerous, and that much more desirous for those who long to enjoy their endless promise. For you see, a hoop can also surround infinite possibilities. Like the song of the siren, or the lure of easy money, hoop dreams can deceive as well as deliver. What they provide all depends on what you're expecting in the first place.
For young basketball prodigies Arthur Agee and William Gates, hoop dreams symbolize the freedom from poverty, a Jacob's ladder out of the ghetto and into a new, greenback laced Promised Land. Sitting inside the core of their circle is Isaiah Thomas, local Chicago boy done VERY NBA good, and the promise a big fat paycheck for one's enormous physical prowess. In their amazing, landmark documentary, filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert managed to capture, over the course of four years, the intoxication of hoop dreams...as well as the disappointment when the wish becomes a wash out. It's here where we learn about the value of hoop dreams. It is also here where we learn about their true, turncoat properties.
In the Midwest, basketball is king, and in Chicago, the reigning rulers of the sport are a small private suburban school known as St. Josephs. Famous as the institution which spawned Isaiah Thomas, as well as their spectacular recruiting classes. They are a sports machine, a dynasty of their own design. Into its jeweled jaws come two junior high students with a lot of potential - Arthur Agee and William Gates. Arthur grows up in a dysfunctional, poverty stricken family with an unpredictable father, a stern but suffering mother and the ever present temptation of the violence filled streets right outside his front door. William comes from an equally unsettled environment, but has a strong willed female role model in his mom, as well as a has-been basketball star brother as a kind of stern stage father figure. Hoping that his sibling achieves the success he never had, Curtis pushes William relentlessly, goading him when he plays poorly, chiding him when he thinks he getting too arrogant.
Both boys are admitted to St. Josephs and immediately butt heads with the team's tumultuous, tyrannical coach Gene Pingatore. An old school disciplinary who can size up talent in a single scan of the court, he makes his initial decisions about William and Arthur. Agee ends up on the Freshman squad, while Gates is a starting player on the Varsity. Thus begins the rollercoaster interscholastic career of these two raw, unrefined sensations. In between the high points and low points, the games and the grades, we learn about the boys' lives, both in and out of the gym. For William, life seems to be pushing him toward a big dance destiny. For Arthur, however, the struggles appear greater than any success he will achieve. Yet together, each has Hoop Dreams – an unswerving belief that the road to a better life is paved with parquet and an eventual spot on an NBA team.
The documentary is the most rarified of the cinematic art forms. Since it's created out of existing material, filtered through a filmmaker's philosophy and simultaneously channeled through the participants or subject matter, it contains the most potential problems, as well as some of the greatest, grandest recompense. Certainly, truth is much more amazing than fiction, but that doesn't mean it makes for better drama. No, in order for a fact film to work as a mainstream motion picture, a certain amount of storytelling serendipity has to occur. Call it right place at the right time syndrome, or the discovery of the undiscovered, but when filmmakers can stumble across the story of a life time, and figure out a way to bring it to the screen without totally screwing it up, then the celluloid gods start to smile and bid their approval.
It's a rarified happening. Recently, the team of Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger witnessed one of the mightiest of meltdowns as the biggest rock and roll group in the world teetered precariously on the brink of implosion during what was supposed to be a short EPK shoot. The result, of course, was the stellar Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. A decade before, this duo also fell into the murder trial of an illiterate farmer from upstate New York, a kind of witch-hunt based in social, not supernatural fears and prejudices. Brother's Keeper was the brilliant, bewildering result. From the carefully crafted cants of Michael Moore, to the often more self-referential than revealing visions of Nick Bloomfield, the fact film has become the equal – and often the better – of its fictional work cousins. And they all have Hoop Dreams to thank for the change. Showing that, by carefully controlling your cinema vérité leanings, while also allowing the narrative to blossom naturally, the team of Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert became the authors on one of real life's greatest epics, one emotional basketball season at a time.
Hoop Dreams was a gamble when it was conceived. As with most long haul pieces, it started out very small, merely a half-hour profile on up and coming high school sports phenoms. But what director James, co-writer (with James) Marx and cameraman Gilbert discovered was, that behind all the fantasies about the NBA fame and superstar riches, there were real people living real lives, individuals caught up in the deadliest of reality's riptides – the promise of a privileged future seemingly fumbled away or foiled by sources beyond everyone's immediate control. Hoop Dreams makes it very clear that talent is just not enough. One has to have luck, exposure, help, heart and a strong inner sense before traversing such treacherous terrain. Along the poison path heroes and villains were easily visible, and far more complicated than anyone imagined. Perhaps the clearest early example of this are the scenes involving the boys' freshman year at St. Joes.
Hoop Dreams is set up along many divergent lines – racial, administrative, personal and financial. From the very start, we can see the players as chattel, bartered and bought in ways that suggest the similar sickening sentiments that accompanied slavery. Toward the beginning of the film, when Arthur and William are recruited by St. Josephs, we learn that money is a major factor in keeping them both enrolled at the suburban high school. Arthur's worth is soon determined, and within 18 months, he is kicked out for overdue tuition. William has a similar saga, unable to afford the hefty educational price tag. But because he is a Varsity star – and as a FRESHMAN even – a well-to-do white couple who represent Encyclopedia Britannica make it their "personal" goal to sponsor William (we later learn that St. Joe's has lots of these behind the scenes beneficiaries). They even go so far as to give him, and later his unemployed brother Curtis, a job at the reference company. And all they ask for is a little face time when the accolades come, a little recognition that, without their help, this disenfranchised player would be stuck in an inner city asylum of a school.
Indeed, such distinctions and arbitrary valuations are what Hoop Dreams is all about. It's amazing to watch the film, as well as those in it, modify and change in direct relationship to the fortunes of William and Arthur. Without giving much away, it is safe to say that William's potential is never fully met, while Arthur's slow burns until it suddenly explodes – and then crashes back to earth. During the up times, the film focuses on the normalcy in these kids lives – their friends, their jobs, their daily ritual. But when tides turn tenuous, when the spoils and victories that the spotlight demands are not frequent, or even forthcoming, the film becomes dark and depressing. This allows our creative trio to deal with issues like Arthur's abusive, drug addict dad, Curtis's obsessive nature, always living through his little brother, and the fading financial fortunes of the Agee family. Thankfully, life provides as many triumphs as travails, and Hoop Dreams never stays in the doldrums for long. But it's also not some magical movie about overcoming poverty to find a place in the world. If anything, what we witness here is the crime of competitive prioritization, not social stigmatization.
Indeed, Hoop Dreams is one of the best movies ever made about the misapplication of sports, and the false idol ideal of worshipping the professional level. Each family we focus on has a member who, at one time or another, thought of themselves as a potential big league baller. William's older brother Curtis can't seem to let go of the limelight he knows rightfully belongs to him. By the end, he is so crushed by his brother's lack of instant success that you can see the aura of defeat consuming him, sucking out the last bit of dignity this egotistical man had to spare. Arthur also has a next of kin nemesis, a man not quite capable of dealing with his own disappoints in life. Seen at first in upbeat moments and nostalgic photos, Arthur's father, Arthur Sr., looks like a skinnier, hungrier Doctor J (Julius Irving) a beautiful bird-like body just calling out for a shot at center court. But after going through his own highly dramatic story arc, there is a seminal moment between father and son on a park playground. Involved in a simple pickup game, Arthur Sr. turns brutally competitive, seeming to challenge his son for even thinking he could have it better, or be more skilled, than his old man. Arthur's reaction is as painful as it is purposeful, and it provides a solidifying moment in his life...and the film's plot as well.
Both Arthur and William learn their worth in the eyes of others during the course of Hoop Dreams, a horrifying lesson in watching your own needs disappear under the weight of expectations and yearnings. All these boys want is a career in the NBA. Yet as the narrative unfolds, they move from a guaranteed gig in the Bigs to a chance at the pros to a high profile Division 1A college program – to just somewhere to play after high school. Education is scoffed at in Hoop Dreams, shown as merely a sidelight for most of these so called student athletes. Coaches are seen scolding their less than listening charges, but there always seems to be a way around the failing mark, or the poor test scores. This is a revolving door designed to maximize wins and loses as well as poorly educated prospects, and no one seems to care that this is the case. Coach Pingatore proffers a very telling statement toward the end of the film. He congratulates William on his future, but takes a moment to remind him of his less than successful stint at St. Joes. As William leaves, dejected and drained, Pingatore turns to the camera and comments that this is the way things are – an old one leaves and a new one enters. While it is probably not meant as a cold or callous remark, it does boil a human being down to the statistical analysis of championships and records.
When you look at it from a basic standpoint, Hoop Dreams is really a movie about failure. Not just the literal ones – Arthur and William's future careers are never guaranteed, after all - but the metaphysical ones as well, the unseen fissures that open and absorb thousands of Arthurs and Williams every year. The coaches again, best represent this. Pingatore is offset by Arthur's coach at the inner city high school, Marshall's Luther Bedford. Just as stern as the St. Joe's icon, but with a heart less hardened and more concerned, we instantly recognize why both men have tasted victory and defeat. Pingatore is about the process – get as many of them in the program as possible, and you'll stumble across your savior. Bedford believes in building up the child, of taking the boy and making a man. The great thing about Hoop Dreams is that we have the opportunity to follow both coaches' fortunes over the years, not just a single season. That one factually comes out on top is not a surprise, but the way in which it occurs, and the ramifications toward everyone involved, are what makes this such a special film.
This is also a movie about maturity, about how aging and reality strip away all the specialness from your dreams, until all you are left with are doubts and desperation. Think of Arthur and William's fantasy as a piece of granite – rock solid and monolithic in their mind. Over the nearly three hours we spend with them, everything is a chisel: coaches, family, friends, sudden parenthood, grades, girlfriends, schooling, recruiting, reality, jobs, race, class and competition. In their mind's eye, the NBA is the answer, the tether to a better life just waiting to be wrapped around their waist and reeled in. But reality just keeps stepping it, using its pointed particulars to chip away at the rock face. By the end, we see the new shape of the dream, one forged out of respect for the real world and a realization that life is not about to simply hand you happiness on a team logo decorated platter. Indeed, William and Arthur learn that all dreams, even hoop dreams require work, dedication and a fair amount of lady luck's happenstance. Nothing will ever be as easy and fun as street ball again.
It is significant life lessons like these, as well as others (the determination of Arthur's mother to graduate from nursing school, the sudden arrival of William's deadbeat dad into the picture when success smiles on his son) that makes Hoop Dreams epic. Sure, there are the big game moments, the edge of our seat suspense that keeps us guessing the outcome of each match-up until the very end. And buried inside all the sidetracks and breakdowns, the sparkle of Michael Jordan, Isaiah Thomas and every other sports superstar still shines through to the very core of the characters. These are people raised on a single, live-saving hope, a knowledge that with great skill comes huge potential rewards. All they need to do is get their sons in the right piece of the professional athlete making machinery and everything will instantly be all right. But what they fail to see is that every apparatus functions on a combination of cogs, gears, operators and merchandise. Sometimes, you're the product. Other times, you're merely the moving parts. For William Gates and Arthur Agee, for their family, friends and future posse members, all they can rely on are Hoop Dreams. Unfortunately, they learn how hollow and hopeless they can truly be.
Filmed on Beta – and eventually Beta SP – and presented in a clean, crisp 1.33:1 full screen image, the Criterion Collection transfer of Hoop Dreams does have some interesting visual limitations. As a video presentation, later transferred to film, the picture contains lots of early technological issues. There is flaring, bleeding, whiting out of outdoor backgrounds and dropping out of darks. But they all make the movie seem that much more real, that much more authentic. This is definitely not going to make the home theater aficionados happy, since the presentation is peppered with said problems. Even more interestingly, Criterion misses the opportunity to master the film from its original tape elements. Seeing Hoop Dreams in its original, video format would have been something very special – something that many studios fail to recognize when they handle non-celluloid creations. There is something tactile and immediate about camcorder cinema, something that would add a fantastic ambiance and atmosphere to any story.
Hoop Dreams is a movie which uses a combination of voice-overs, rap and hip hop music, narration and interviews, all of which is captured perfectly in the Dolby Digital Stereo mix. All conversations are clear, all sounds reverberating with pristine power. This is not a moody, or channel challenging aural offering though. Instead, it's a straightforward presentation of an excellent sonic scenario.
There is an interesting story about the bonus features offered on Hoop Dreams. Criterion originally authorized the filmmakers to make a follow-up piece on the key characters in Hoop Dreams. But when they approached the boys, now men, they learned that their life since the movie was as interesting as the original film itself. So the Behind the Scenes featurette that was supposed to be on the disc is now being made into a Hoop Dreams sequel, proper. Our loss becomes, hopefully, another cinematic classic.
Fortunately, the extras actually on the DVD are stellar in their own right. The main added content comes in two separate, sensational commentaries, one featuring Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, the other featuring Arthur Agee and William Gates themselves. For the stars of the film, the discussion is a loose, genial trip back through the fun and frustration of high school. Each guy sounds settled and centered, able to view their legacy and the film through rational, reasonable eyes. Both men discuss the impact of their coaches, and trade stories about playing in the neighborhood. William is particularly harsh when discussing his knee surgeries, while Arthur feels betrayed by some of the spotlight the cameras created on what are otherwise everyday issues for black people in the projects. Each one has a hero who has since fallen (Curtis and Arthur Sr. are no longer with us) and shows a real depth of emotions when discussing these icons. Getting a chance to hear the "stars" reflect on their four years of fame is a remarkable experience, and makes the Criterion Collection version of Hoop Dreams a real collector's item.
Even more interesting is the filmmakers' track. Running through the production from its inception until the premier, the way in which Hoop Dreams grew and changed over the years is the center of the conversation. We learn how much a part of the boys' lives these white outsiders became (even helping out during a particularly tough financial time) as well as the arguments they had with the parents and the participants. Some of the techniques used to create drama and maintain narrative drive are revealed, as well as the best way to film a basketball game with one handheld camera. All three agree that Hoop Dreams was purposefully intended to break out of the talking head mode of traditional documentaries. But they don't fully defend the vérité style either. Instead, they believe that they opened up a true doorway into the urban experience, of showing how suburban schools recruit and recycle young black kids into their highly efficient but emotionless programs, only to abandon them when their aptitude no longer applies.
The rest of the bonus features are just as good. We get a music video for the film's theme song, trailers, and what is perhaps the most interesting feature ever presented by the company. Criterion digs up the segments hosted by Gene Siskel and Roget Ebert on Hoop Dreams for their film criticism television show. We see their initial review, the follow-up comments, the memo to the Academy Awards, and the outrage when Oscar snubbed the movie for very controversial, crackpot reasons. Aside from the nostalgic aspect of seeing these two major reviewers in their prime, their passion for Hoop Dreams is obvious. As a result, we gain additional insights into the movie and the way it affected individuals both inside, and outside the media. We are treated to more of this type of material in a booklet featuring comments written by the filmmakers, new essays by writers John Edgar Wideman, and Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff, as well as a Washington Post piece by Michael Wise. All help us understand the Hoop Dreams experience, both as a film and as a phenomenon.
Hoop dreams aren't always so harsh. Sometimes, they're just unrealistic. To think that you are the one person out of thousands who will be the next superstar, or the next celebrity in a field so crowded that even true talent is often overlooked is foolhardy. To worship at an altar that warrants nothing but pledges everything is not sane. Still, it's hard to stop the longing; it's impossible to break from the desire to determine your own fate, to spark your future with your own skills, your own sense of self. So what people misread as cruelty is really just truth. Not everyone will be a renowned basketball player (or actress or politician). The odds are against you, the difficulties far more prevalent than the successes. But perhaps that's not why hoop dreams are so addictive. Maybe, like the movie named after them, these visions provide a comfort outside their reward. Perhaps they let someone who is otherwise troubled or beaten down believe in himself or herself in a way that makes them able to cope. Sometimes, hope dreams are about more than just the fanciful wish at the end of the rainbow. Occasionally, the story is the desire itself. This is what makes us gravitate toward and live through our fondest ambitions. This is why Hoop Dreams is one of the greatest American documentaries ever made.
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