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Mooney vs. Fowle

Direct cinema has always been a particular sort of art as well, a point made brilliantly clear in Mooney vs. Fowle.

Mooney vs. Fowle

Director: James Lipscomb
Cast: Ottis Mooney, Haywood Fowle
Rated: NR
Studio: James Lipscomb Inc.
Year: 1962
US date: 2011-03-22 (Stranger Than Fiction)

"All right, tough up front," announces Coach Mooney of Miami High School's football team. He turns to a player on the practice field, urging, "If you get out there and there's a lot of green grass, take off, you know what I mean? Get out there quick. If there's nobody around, go." He gestures downfield. "Don't run into the lineman. Get there quick, a little quicker. That's your responsibility, you've got to get there." His players lower their heads and head out to try again.

It's 1961 and Ottis Mooney is preparing his team to play in the biggest game of their short careers, a showdown between the Miami High Stings and their longtime rivals, the Miami Edison Red Raiders. As recounted in Mooney vs. Fowle, Mooney and his opponent, Coach Haywood Fowle, take their work seriously, each determined to lead his team to victory before some 40,000 spectators. Meeting on the field just before the game, they exchange a few terse words: "It’s a tough way to make a living, isn't it?" observes Mooney, only half joking.

The film screens 22 March at Stranger Than Fiction, a pre-season special show, followed by a Q&A with producer Robert Drew, director James Lipscomb, and cameramen D.A. Pennebaker and Bill Ray. Their remarkable documentary is an early and near legendary example of American direct cinema (albeit with a narrator and subjects' direct addresses to the camera). While direct cinema is renowned as an observational mode of filmmaking, it has always been a particular sort of art as well, a point made brilliantly clear in Mooney vs. Fowle.

Cutting between the preparations of both teams, the film sets up a tension that's at once friendly and fierce. At Miami Edison, students march in hallways and in the parking lot, asserting their resolve to "Beat Miami High!" The coaches, both passionate and devoted, take different approaches, Mooney earnestly encouraging his boys, the underdogs ("They are the favorite," he declares, "They’ve done better lately than we have, that's the truth"), and Fowle insisting that his men prepare for hard battle. Even when he decides before a practice, "I wasn’t gonna get mad at anybody, I was gonna build 'em up," Fowle tells the camera, "I got mad."

Scenes in their homes reinforce these differences, as Fowle, described by the narrator as a "bachelor"), eats dinner with his foster son, then reflects on his coaching style: "For any learning to take place," he says, "there has to be an emotional stimulus." And, he adds, referring to an exchange with the camera operator not included in the film, "As you pointed out, he got the message." This break with a purely observational form reminds you of the complicated relations between filmmakers and subjects, the ways they tell stories together.

Similarly, after a brief scene showing Mooney at home with his wife and children, planted in front of a television set ("His family helps him almost forget football," offers the narrator), the film cuts to the coach driving to work as he ponders what it means to have children. "They are real cute and a lot of fun and so on, and the amazing thing about 'em, really, is that they don’t care if you lose or even how you play the game really." The camera hovers in the back seat, so Mooney appears a looming silhouette, "It's too bad that people grow out of that," he goes on, "But it seems that as you get older, everybody seems to like people in proportion to what they have or what they represent or what they can do for you sometimes."

When time comes for the big game, you see how he's come to this self-reflection: the frenzy of activity is daunting. In the locker room, Mooney again encourages his players to understand the game as such. "All of you we want the finest game," he says, "It's a lot of fun when you play it that way... just reckless, loose, as full of speed as you can be." He slams a bat again and again on a bench before him, the sound echoing down the hallway. Fowle looks out on his team and says, "Let every man feel like he's done his best."

On the field and in the stands, it's all noise and anticipation and limbs flailing, as cheerleaders, fans, and band members nearly drown out the coaches. As an announcer helps the film to break down the plays, pictured in standard long, high-angle shots, repeated shots show Mooney and Fowle on the sidelines, pacing and grimacing and signaling to their players. The game is hard -- emotionally as well as physically. As Miami Edison players watch their opponents drive down the field and score, their expressions reflect their increasing urgency. The star halfback Bob Ashworth, his face taut and his eyes scanning the field, as his squad -- the Red Raiders' offense -- can't seem to get on the field.

While Mooney vs. Fowle is full of tensions and action, the game is at last less compelling than images like this -- the faces of players, of coaches, of fans. Stunned or weary, weeping or triumphant, they make the film, in every way.


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