Monday, February 7, 2011

Big Red



I finally saw the Secretariat film last week. I had been warned, so my disappointment wasn't as great as it might have been. A pleasant distortion of many of the facts, but still entertaining. Disney at its best, especially the undercurrent of "Oh Happy Day," the spiritual-inspired tune by the Edwin Hawkins singers running throughout. It soars during the big climax at the end too. Disney being Disney.
So the question becomes, why can't Hollywood, or anyone for that matter, make an honest horse racing film? Seabiscuit was OK, but the documentaries are always better, in my view. I think it's a matter of will. Now I have no expectations from Disney. You're going to get happy endings and that's that. Even at the end of the film, when they show the real individuals on screen and do the where are they now? messages, Disney won out again. When Ron Turcotte's picture appeared, instead of mentioning that he was a paraplegic, the caption said he was injured in a racing accident and now "rides his wheelchair." No shit. I'm sure there are some Zenyatta ideas in the works. Certainly not the same kind of tension there, but even after the mare wins 19 in a row, and then loses her only race by a nose in the Breeder's Cup Classic, there are disbelievers.
Of the few things I know something about, two have an interesting similarity when movies are made about them. As an educator, I always marvel at how teachers are rarely seen teaching a lesson in class. Ever notice how the bell rings in the classroom of about 14 students and most of the dialogue and action takes place after class? On TV it's even worse. All those TV shows with teachers as main character, and we never see them teach. Why do you suppose that is? A notable exception would be Stand and Deliver, where Jaime Escalante is actually shown teaching math and Calculus. But screenwriters and directors rarely show teachers planning curriculum, teaching lessons, pondering over student writing, dealing with any one of the 14 major decisions daily that researchers tell us are just part of the profession. I wonder how long it will be before we see the hours grading papers after the school day is over, or teachers spending their own money so that they might be able to teach a given lesson or book.
Similarly, in horse racing films, jockeys are always wearing their silks all over the place. They are in silks in the morning, in the barn area, after the race. In the starting gate, they always say things like "you'll eat my dust" (twice in Secretariat!) and rarely speak more than a sentence or two. Just once I'd like to see them reading or talking to each other in the jock's room.
One of the things that I first noticed when I first became a turf writer was how diverse the community of the backstretch really was. And not just ethnic diversity; it could still use a bit more there. But class diversity, for sure. It's really a microcosm of the larger culture: high brow to low brow, God fearer to atheist, dropout to advanced degree.
So they don't get it right...so what? It's a simple matter of will; that's what. Some decide what story will be told, some decide what story they want to hear.
I suppose there is another side when we do finally see something different. Recent National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule would make a great film. It deals, however, with the most ugly and despicable people and circumstances of horse racing. The little universe swirling around Indian Mound Downs, the fictional setting for this tale of low life where the grass is not only less green, but often dying, contains kernels of truth. It has to battle the stereotypes, of course, but it's a gritty tale filled with horror, suspense, and just enough sex and violence to make some screenwriter come calling.
Come to think of it, they do make TV films about teachers gone astray. The ones that get involved with former students, or the pedophiles, or the unethical. It's what sells, isn't it?

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