Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Wednesday, Jan 25, 2012

Ayrton Senna was a star. As recounted in Asif Kapadia’s terrific documentary, the Formula One driver was not only skilled and daring, but also charismatic and thoughtful. The film begins as he arrives from Brazil for the first time in Europe to compete in goo-kart races, and immediately draws attention, from other racers as well as media. “It was pure driving, pure racing,” he says in an interview at the time, 1978. “There wasn’t any politics involved in it, no money involved either. Like it was real racing.” The film goes on to consider the many ways that politics manifest in Formula One racing, the ways that teams make money, hire drivers, and contract with media, even as it also conveys what’s thrilling about the driving, from a driver’s perspective, for the most part. Using remarkable footage from inside drivers’ cockpits. As Senna, his chief competitor and teammate Alain Prost, and a range of number of international commentators and journalists discuss what’s at stake, for national, corporate and individual identities, the film leads inevitably to Senna’s death in 1994, following a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. Less celebratory than contemplative, more nuanced than definitive, the documentary articulates risks and also allows the drivers to describe their nearly ecstatic experiences. Senna is a heady mix of material, psychic, and emotional elements, unresolved.


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Tuesday, Jan 24, 2012

“It masks pain from head to toe.” And, Andrea Kremer continues, “It’s a part of the game that the public’s not really supposed to see.” “It” is Toradol and the game is football, together the focus of the lead story on the latest Real Sports, premiering on HBO 24 January. As Kremer’s disturbing report reveals, this non-narcotic “wonder drug” has been used by players for years, but it’s only recently—in part because of a lawsuit brought by an increasing number of former players against the NFL, alleging a conspiracy to conceal information about concussions. The suit includes language pointing to the blood-thinning effects of Toradol as one of the exacerbating elements in some concussions. These are also associated with other consequences, according to Real Sports’ interviews with former team doctors and other experts, including gastro intestinal bleeding and liver and kidney disease. When Kremer reveals this information to the Chicago Bears’ Brian Urlacher, he sounds surprised, but he insists he’ll continue to take Toradol. “We love football,” he explains. “We want to be on the football field as much as possible.” When an NFL rep suggests that he sees her report as an “opportunity” for players and fans to “get this information,” she makes exactly the right point: “But they’re getting it through us, they’re not getting it through you.”


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Tuesday, Dec 13, 2011

The Brazilian-born racecar driver Ayrton Senna was a phenomenon. And as such, he was filmed, interviewed, and photographed repeatedly throughout his career, images now assembled as the documentary Senna. Available for iTunes rental now via FilmBuff, Asif Kapadia’s film is phenomenal in its own way, as it cuts together multiple images of Senna, under a series of interviews with those individuals who knew and observed him.  The documentary’s brilliance lies in its mix of then and now, both haunting and immediate. In part, this effect is a function of Senna’s own story: his life was famously cut short when in 1994, when his car crashed during Italy’s San Marino Grand Prix. But it’s also produced in the texture of the documentary, the grainy TV clips, the point-of-view driving shots, the footage of drivers, crewmembers, and journalists at work and on display. There’s not a moment of the film that feels staged, but of course, that’s the ingenious fiction of celebrity: by turns thoughtful and frustrated, generous and arrogant, Senna appears here always past and ever present, an image constructed out of dreams and needs, an image that’s simultaneously made up and sincere, abstract and irresistible, history and myth.


See PopMattersreview.



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Tuesday, Oct 18, 2011

“This is a story of hope and reclamation,” says the narrator at the start of Charismatic. Named for the colt who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 1999, the documentary—which premieres on ESPN on 18 October—is also a story of demons and drugs and dreams. The jockey who rode Charismatic to his audacious victories, Chris Antley, was gifted and troubled. As the film begins, he’s just getting out of rehab, and the chance to ride Charismatic is a last one. He was brought on by the horse’s trainer, the famous Wayne Lukas, and he made the best of it, at least at first (Lukas is not interviewed here, maybe because, as one colleague suggests, he still blames Antley’s bad ride in the Belmont that year for not winning the Triple Crown). Steve Michaels’ film offers a series of race footage clips, walks through barns, and talking heads. These include Antley’s friend and fellow jockey Gary Stevens and assistant trainers Mike Marlow and Randy Bradshaw: they describe basic events, noting that the horse was in a claiming race just three months before the Kentucky Derby, then won that race as a 31-1 shot with Antley on board.


This late “blossoming” was not unheard of, but it was thrilling: the horse and Antley became instantly famous as redemption stories, before they were not. The film goes at these stories in odd ways, framing TV interviews or races footage on actual TVs, located in stable aisles or in locker rooms. On one level, the device suggests the causal links between mass media and myths, the ways that stories are concocted for consumption and profits, and also how tragedies are similarly exploited. But the film doesn’t make this analysis, as much as it acts out a similar exploitation. Antley’s redemption is short-lived, and the film doesn’t look at how this happens or how the culture of jockeys and the industry of horse racing are contexts for it, so much as it laments the loss of an opportunity to make history.



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Thursday, Jul 28, 2011

The Answer—Allen Iverson—has always provoked questions. Steve James’ documentary, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, revisits some of these, beginning with a look back at the trial held in Hampton, Virginia, where the “high school phenom” then lived. The filmmaker also grew up in Hampton, and his father B.J., an avid local sports fan, drew his attention to Iverson, whose trial commenced while James was living in Chicago. In the film the trial is at once specific, concerning Iverson’s involvement in a fight at a local bowling alley on Valentine’s Day, 1993. Charged with “maiming by mob,” Iverson and some classmates became vehicles for a harrowing exposure of the town’s racial divisions. In the film, James sorts through legal and political intersections, talking with community members, lawyers, protestors, and sports writers, as well as his own mother. James himself becomes an interview subject, when his black camera operator Keith Walker asks about his relationship to Hampton’s racist history. The film is at once attentive to that history and relentlessly metaphorical, reminding everybody of what they know and what they’d like to forget.


No Crossover kicks off the Steve James Master Class on 28 July at Maysles Cinema.


See PopMattersreview of No Crossover and interview with Steve James. See also, our review of Hoop Dreams, which screens 29 July.



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