'Harvard Man' misses the hoop
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture:

In theaters
"Harvard Man," directed by James Toback (opens in selected theaters July 12)
In 1999, Toback wrote and directed a film called "Black and White," which features, among other things, affluent white kids mimicking black hip-hop culture, rap artists looking to cut a record, a cop going undercover to get revenge on his ex-lover and her new boyfriend, a basketball player shaving points for money, a pseudo-intellectual filmmaker and her on-the-make gay husband shooting a documentary, and a whole bunch of sex, suspicion, betrayal and violence.

Sarah Michelle-Gellar, Rebecca Gayheart
Not even this intriguing scene with Sarah Michelle Gellar, left, and Rebecca Gayheart can save "Harvard Man."
It's a sprawling, swirling mess of a film that doesn't hold together in any traditional way, but in the end there is something brave and kind of brilliant about it. The cast, including a very good Mike Tyson, is fresh. Characters almost never say what you think they would or should say. There's a heady mix of slang and philosophy flowing off everybody's tongue, and taboo subjects and relationships are always in the mix.

Race and sex aren't abstract ideas in "Black and White," they're real practices and poses taken up by folks who are hip to the pleasures and are confronting the costs of crossing traditional lines. And basketball, like music and film, is part of the high-stakes interplay of power, desire and envy.

It works because Toback is willing to abandon the idea of a tight, linear story in favor of introducing ideas (even if he doesn't quite know what to make of them or exactly what to say about them), ideas that we all know, but would rather not admit, are in play in American pop culture every day.

I first saw it alone, in an empty theater in a forsaken little shopping mall in Iowa, and I came out afterward on fire with questions I wanted to ask and arguments I wanted to get into, hungry to be in a room full of folks who didn't look like, didn't know, didn't trust, and couldn't take their eyes off, each other.

"Harvard Man," Toback's new movie about an Ivy League hoopster caught up in a plot to fix games, has some of the same raw energy that "Black and White" did, but almost none of its heat and pop. There are quick-cuts and interesting games with time and perception, but where "Black and White" had an experimental filmmaking edge that highlighted intense intersections between people, the same kind of stuff in "Harvard Man" seemed only loosely tied to vague ideas about being "out there" -- about taking risks and experimenting with sex and drugs and whatnot -- in search of some kind of transcendence.

It's a smaller film than "Black and White," more tightly focused on the experience and consciousness of one character, Harvard point guard Allen Jensen (Adrian Grenier). And there's something honest, and honestly clumsy, about the way Jensen and his two love interests, a cheerleader and a professor (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Joey Lauren Adams), sway between being self-assured and completely at a loss. But watching them bob and weave isn't very compelling or emotionally exciting. Ultimately, the sex and drug episodes feel like clichéd stabs at going "over the edge" and searching for enlightenment.

It's too bad, too, because Toback had something fresh at his fingertips, if only he had explored it: Basketball. What goes on in a player's head when he pushes himself, when he holds himself back, when he feels the high of working intuitively with his teammates, when he endures the weird, desperate spiral of letting them down or even of turning his back on them? How are hoops and sex and drugs tapping into similar veins? These are new takes on what the "edge" looks and feels like. They're questions that would have taken the movie over new ground.

They're the stuff of a movie that hasn't been made. Yet.

While you're waiting for it, check out "Black and White."

On the shelf
"Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," John Updike (in "Baseball: A Literary Anthology," released April 1)
Ted Williams was never real to me. I'm too young. He was a guy in black-and-white pictures, a Strat-O-Matic card, someone I read about.

Ted Williams
Ted Williams' complex relationship with the Fenway faithful is explored in John Updike's splendid essay.
When I heard he died Friday, the first thing I did was go back to "Hub Fans," Updike's 1960 essay on Williams' last game.

A former professor of mine tells the story of how his high school English teacher told his class John F. Kennedy had been shot and then read Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," an elegy for Abraham Lincoln, out loud as a way for all of them to cope with the news. I've always liked that impulse: reading as memorial. I like the idea that reading's quiet commitment of time and attention is an especially decent and human gesture in response to death. And, like I said, it was the right thing to do with Williams because he's only ever really existed in my imagination anyway.

That's what Updike's piece is about: how people imagined Williams, for good and bad. It's a piece about watching him from afar. It's a story of how distance makes men look mythic, and of how it makes them seem bitter and foreboding, too. More than that, it is an essay by a writer trying to respect and describe and maybe even reach out across the distance between where he sits in the stands and where Williams stands at the plate.

Lines in it are so sweet I ache to have written them. Others seem so right to me I halfway think I did write them, or thought them, or have always known them.

I think you should read it.

On the small screen
2002 Tour de France on the Outdoor Living Network (July 6-29)
What if, instead of butchered montages, tortured poetry and manufactured storylines, someone showed you the whole race, start to finish? What if there were a European video feed, complete with authentic kilometer markers and cool little peloton and breakaway graphics? What if there were close-ups and helicopter shots? What if, instead of a simple-minded obsession with the overall leader, there was a genuine appreciation for the hard-working guys who helped him get there and a real enthusiasm for each individual stage-winner?

  Wonder no more, my friends. Tune in to OLN. There are 15 glorious stages to go.

On the web
An insanely deep archive of more than 15,000 players' statistical records. The kind of site you get lost in and don't want to be found.

Speaking of getting lost, they'll help you prep your summer baseball tour with a handy travel guide. Enter you zip code and the number of miles you're willing to travel and the reference engine kicks out every ballpark and baseball attraction within striking distance and provides a map to boot.

When you get home, you can contribute to their database by offering your comments and reviews.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.



Eric Neel Archive

Critical Mass: Self-reflection and new jack jocks

Critical Mass: Still looking for answers about '72 hoops

Critical Mass: Early birds get the football

Critical Mass: The newest oxymoron -- a happy Nets fan

Critical Mass: Mainframe Malone & Co.

Critical Mass: Healing Magic

Critical Mass: Tuned in with the sound off

Critical Mass: 'Rayguns' on target

Critical Mass: Conspiracy fodder with a soundtrack

Critical Mass: Don't think, just watch the film

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index