Thursday, March 01, 2012

Josh Wilker on the 1970s, baseball, and the Bad News Bears

A year late, I'm finally reading Josh Wilker's little book in Soft Skull's Deep Focus series, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, and what a joy it is. Wilker first came to my attention several years back through his blog, Cardboard Gods, where he uses his large collection of beat-up 1970s and early '80s baseball cards as entry points into a running narrative about sports, success, America, family, failure, and the 1970s. The blog was transmuted and expanded into a memoir, also called Cardboard Gods, a couple of years ago; it's nearly equal parts funny and moving, telling the story of a family riven by divorce but held together--tenuously and painfully at times--by their impressively tenacious love for one another. It captures the spirit of the 1970s better than anything else I know, that sense that no matter where you turned the adults were no longer even pretending to have the answers, and the kids were thus utterly on their own.

And, like I said, it's funny. Click through this link to look at Bo McLaughlin's card, which is accompanied by this description:
In the 1970s, everyone was in one way or another a stranger in a strange land. The clear cultural battle lines of the shrill, combative ’60s had blurred. Everyone had sideburns and a mustache. Everyone was aging. Everyone worked a regular job and dabbled in jogging and cocaine. Everyone bought their children faulty mood rings and overly cheerful sex education handbooks. Everyone filed for divorce. Everyone wore rainbow colors and succumbed to depression. Everyone was Bo McLaughlin.
The next page opens with the line: "Everybody except Steve Garvey." Any baseball fan from that era can tell you that there could be no better juxtaposition between the aggressively clean-cut, secretly slimy Garvey on his 1976 All-Star card and McLaughlin's confused embodiment of the let-it-all-hang-out ethos of the era.

I somehow failed to write about Cardboard Gods when it was published, despite raving about it to friends. If you want more on that book, check out John Williams's piece at the Second Pass, in which he exchanges e-mails about the book with a friend who was also a baseball fan in those years.

Here, though, I'll turn to the newer book. I can't imagine anyone better suited than Wilker to take on a Bad News Bears movie--and, even better, to take on not the first film, which is quietly a great movie, remarkable perceptive and funny, but the little-regarded sequel. Failure, disappointment, and diminishing returns, after all, are among Wilker's recurrent themes. And the book is as good as I'd hoped: he mounts an argument, not that The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is a good film, but that it played a key role for him as a child, and that, properly (but not overly) analyzed, it has a lot to tell us about the exhaustion and confusion of the late '70s.

Here's Wilker, early in the book, on the feel of the decade, a meditation prompted by the refusal of Tanner, the team's loudmouth shortstop, to leave the field when some officials come out to tell them they've run out of time to complete the game:
In 1977, everything was unraveling. Families, hopes, economies. What to do? Some drifted, others flailed. The overwhelmed president seemed to be aging at an alarming rate. Skylab, a dull echo of the space program's earlier glory, circled the globe in a repetitive, empty progression toward the inevitable disintegration of its orbit. Everyone stared at TV reruns.

Who wouldn't capitulate if authorities in suits appeared and reported that time had run out? If they pointed to their watches and said, apologies, the game is over, please clear the field, who wouldn't exhale and maybe grouse or grieve but then obey?
I could share passages from this book ad infinitum. Here's the first iteration of Wilker's thoughts on sequels, a concept that gets examined in depth through the course of the book:
There is something inherently cancerous about sequels. The cell of the original is doubled, often with an eye toward a further doubling, tripling, quadrupling, and so on: action figures and clothing and cereal and cartoons, novelizations and trading cards and Happy Meals and video games. The ultimate success, in economic terms, would be that these lesser, misshapen mutations of the original proliferate exponentially, spreading through the culture like an epidemic.
Then there's his description of Kelly Leak, the cool kid who is the primary link between the casual brilliance of the first Bad News Bears film and whatever good qualities remain in the second:
There was a Kelly Link in every town, and in every grade. Or versions of Kelly Link, echoes of the prototype, but still figures of awe. The one in my grade, Mike, had a white coral choker necklace kind of like Kelly's and hung out with older kids and had dominion over mechanized things--not only minibikes and snowmobiles but even, somehow, knowing how to drive. He partied.
I'll close with a more extended passage, one that takes a bit of close analysis of what was designed to be--and, frankly, is--a throwaway film and draws out of it a juxtaposition between the relative innocence of the dissolute '70s and the deliberate jadedness of today:
But there is a moment earlier in that scene that I love; it's not even anything I consciously noticed until I'd seen the film many, many times. Carmen dismounts from the back of Kelly's bike, then enters the field of play by vaulting over the fence. The beauty of this action is that he vaults over a part of the fence immediately adjacent to an open gate. He would have had to move a matter of inches to walk through it simply and easily. Instead, he vaults, and not in a particularly graceful way, either. It's not something anyone in their right mind would have done, ever, in the history of earth, and I love it.

A similar moment occurs in the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder. Ben Stiller's character, action movie hero Tugg Speedman, needs to move from point A to point B to rejoin his cohorts, and though the direct line between those points is clear and would require him only to move straight ahead, he veers slightly to the right to leap over a chunk of burning scenery. It's a brief hilarious moment in a very funny movie about film fakery, but the moment itself comes out of an extremely mannered and deeply entrenched sense of irony that is part of the cultural air we now breathe. When Carmen Ronzonni unnecessarily clambers over the fence, it's not done as a commentary on the laughable fakeness of cinematic poses but as the sincere, creative expression of a fictional character who is completely, beautifully full of shit.
If you, too, find yourself on occasion strangely wistful for the awkward mix of hope, openness, experimentation, emptiness, exhaustion, and uncertainty that was the 1970s--and your desire to actually understand it is sometimes so fierce as to almost make you ache--I recommend you read Josh Wilker every chance you get.

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