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An Age Of Small Anarchies
   Some 70's films to reflect on
   by Timothy Dugdale

There are many things that you can say about America in the Age of Bush. One of them is that America seems to be the land that fun forgot. The stock market is a shooting star and tycoons are paying less tax on more loot. But the little people are feeling low. The war stinks, gas is expensive, foreclosures are rampant, the culture fails to nourish and doctors are writing scripts for anti-depressants like a million monkeys writing Shakespeare.

To quote Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again. If you liked Nixon, you must be loving George the Younger. For those of us harboring darker emotions, these are dark days indeed.

As a man cruising into his forties on an ill wind of pique and fatigue, I have begun searching the cinema of the seventies, the graveyard of Nixon’s folly, for role models who can see me through to better days. Contemporary touchstones are lacking. I’ve sat through horrible things like Little People, and marveled at how this is supposed to be profound commentary on men growing older and more pathetic in American suburbs. Thank you, no.

First stop, The Bad News Bears. When you’re a kid, adults seem like an alien species. We didn’t know the details of their lives but we knew they had lived much longer than us. They were slower, fatter, worn down and worn out. Just like Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), the boozy ex-minor league player who barely earns his keep cleaning pools. A dodgy councilman recruits Buttermaker to coach a team of ethnic, pint-sized misfits, mandated by some civil rights lawsuit. The role is perfect for Matthau who perfected this kind of shambling loser with a liver of gold long ago.

As my colleague Nick Rombes has noted, the film delights in a punk sensibility on display from the very opening, when Buttermaker arrives at the ballpark with a cooler of brew and a fuming cigar. One sequence later, a local juvenile delinquent livens up opening day by tearing around the bases on his motorcycle as horrified parents and local officials look on. Before he takes his coaching gig seriously, Buttermaker has the kids mixing martinis for him and cleaning his pools. The Southern Cal suburban setting and the general tone of nervous propriety make the various acts of defiance all the more savory.

Indeed, this is a film of small yet meaningful anarchies, not the least of which is that Buttermaker is still tippling and smoking by the time his team loses the championship game to a bunch of robo-kids coached by a tight-ass bully who cares more about winning than the kids having a good time. Even better, Buttermaker convincingly rebuffs the efforts of the precocious Amanda (Tatum O'Neal) to rekindle his long-dead romance with her mother. Buttermaker refuses suburban domesticity just as the kids refuse the often weak authority of adults who joylessly adhere to agendas of control and comfort. If Buttermaker is transformed, it is because he realizes that the kids, foul-mouthed and ill-tempered, got that way paying careful attention to the idiocies of adults. He engages the tots as they are and they respect him for it.

Why Richard Linklater tried a remake of this film is beyond me. The original said it all and said it well.

Much the same can be said for Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), the beleaguered player/coach of the Charlestown Chiefs in the film Slapshot. His team sucks because his players, a motley crew of hackers and has-beens, suck. The team’s general manager is a shifty geezer who floats a cockamammy story about the team relocating to Florida. This gets the players all aflutter about new life skating under the palms but Reggie isn’t buying it. In order to boost the team’s market value, Dunlop is forced to baby sit a trio of childish goons who, when they’re not busting heads on the ice, play slot cars in the dingy hotel rooms the team endures on the road. Before long, the Chiefs are a hit with the town rabble looking for a bloody diversion from the recent closing of the town’s steel mill.

Newman is great in this role. His Reggie is a jovial yet befuddled man-child trying to figure out what comes next but he’s not smart enough to hatch a viable plan. He has to play it by ear and he doesn’t particularly care for it, especially when his ex-wife won’t have him back. When he finally confronts the team’s owner, a wealthy suburban single mother, she tells him he could sell the Chiefs but won’t because her accountant has advised her to kill the Chiefs and take the tax write-off instead. Dunlop promptly alerts the team to the truth and they decide to go out with class in the championship. No dirty play. Alas, their reputation for thuggery proceeds them and the opposing team is ready to rumble. The game is a disaster of fighting and an unexpected striptease.

Slapshot doesn’t hide its melancholy. The rinks and the cocktail lounges belong to Nixon’s America in its twilight, muddling through Carter’s ineptitude, waiting for Reagan to show the way to the shining city on the hill where the sixties were just a bad dream and the seventies a sad nightmare.

Reggie refuses to hang up skates because he knows what awaits him when he does. He refuses for the sake of refusing. And sometimes that’s enough. Especially now.

-- Timothy Dugdale

Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at the University of Detroit Mercy.


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