Monday, December 18, 2017

Miracle on the greens

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2000)

I doubt that my low regard for Robert Redford’s new film The Legend of Bagger Vance is simply a consequence of my not being a golfer. True, it came as a surprise to me how much of the film – well over half – consists basically of a golf tournament, the progress of which marks (of course) the redemption of its protagonist. But then, Ron Shelton’s Tin Cup a few years ago was also an intensive golf movie, and I liked that one just fine (I cannot at the moment recall with accuracy whether I’ve ever seen the daddy of them all, Caddyshack, although for some reason I’m fairly sure I’ve seen Caddyshack 2). I watch the major tournaments on TV, monitor Tiger Woods’ progress toward the record of 18 major championships, and have occasionally faked my way through a conversation with a keen golfer without ever divulging my own lack of participation. I rather like the notion of golf as a solitary endeavor, spread out over a vast terrain, variously requiring both brute strength and extraordinary delicacy of touch and analysis. None of this is likely to find me spending three or four hours walking and hitting balls when I could be watching a movie (not just any movie – Lawrence of Arabia!), but it means I’m as up for a good golf movie as anyone else is.

Faded hotshot

Steeped in golf lore, Bagger Vance is the story of a faded young hotshot (Matt Damon) whose glittering career peters out after he’s traumatized by his service in World War One. He descends into drink and inertia, until the local bigshots stage an exhibition match between titans Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, and seek his participation as the only semi-viable local representative. He initially refuses, but then (for reasons that the film barely manages to articulate) changes his mind. Carrying his bag is the title character (Will Smith), who simply appears from the darkness one night, to begin instantly dispensing advice and insight, all with a detached twinkle and infinite patience and self-possession.

Redford doesn’t appear in the film (although the actor who plays Jones is a dead ringer for the younger RR) but in its pictorial splendor, its deliberate pace, its adherence to traditional values and general inoffensiveness, and in the amount of time it spends photographing grass, it’s squarely in line with most of the movie’s he’s directed. I just looked back at my review of his last film The Horse Whisperer, in June 1998. One of the greatest achievements of that film, I said, was that “even though we know Redford is directing it himself, and that he’s therefore personally responsible for taking a simple story and padding it out to almost three hours, largely by making his own character into some kind of mythic ideal of unpolluted masculinity, it doesn’t offend us as one of the more tasteless ego trips in recent cinema. This I suppose is the true mark of his skill: to stand before us as an icon without inciting revolt or revulsion.”

Happy caddy

Bagger Vance is much the same thing, except on this occasion it’s significantly more annoying (although at least it’s a bit shorter). The Horse Whisperer had a genuine interest in character, however woolly and self-indulgent. But I can hardly remember a “serious” film that showed so little curiosity in or regard for the complexity of human personality as Bagger Vance. Damon’s background is sketched for us in a long opening voice-over; we get a couple of scenes of his down-and-out state, then he decides to sign on to the golf tournament and from there it’s one big ride to renewal. The character is a complete cipher, a blank vessel with “Save me” written across his vacant forehead.

But the conception of Damon’s character is positively Shakespearean compared to that of the eponymous Bagger. It’s an (I suppose) amusing irony that Jada Pinkett Smith could be seen in screens in Spike Lee’s savage Bamboozled, where she’s at the heart of the film’s diatribe against reductive images of black culture, her husband Will happily occupies an utterly demeaning role in which he’s cast as a beaming sprite, channeling mystic wisdom and intuition. Southern golf clubs are famous for their late conversion (if it’s happened at all) to the cause of integration, but there’s not the slightest hint of this subject in Bagger Vance. When Damon suffers an abysmal start to the tournament, and the local bigwigs rail at Vance for his apparent negative influence on their intended golden boy, it’s very hard to imagine that their antipathy would have been so scrupulously expressed in entirely non-racial terms.

A perfect shot

Anyway, the film has no psychological tension whatsoever, and since the outcome is exactly the one that you’d imagine, there’s really not a lot to it. I wasn’t bored, but I had a lot of time dring the film to think over my stocks, and some stuff I have on my desk at work, and much more besides. One of the things I thought about was why so many films of supposedly serious intent dabble now in theologically unspecific but explicitly supernatural mysticism. I remember being amazed ten years ago when Field of Dreams got away with being so silly, but nowadays that movie would seem virtually sane. The Green Mile, for instance, with its Jesus Christ evocations attached to a dumb prisoner possessing the power of healing, was staggeringly pretentious and stupid – and it got an Oscar nomination! (Come to think of it, a black actor filled that role too – I’d like Spike Lee to investigate this trend). Pay it Forward verges on the same territory, not to mention that there’s another angel movie (although if the angels are Charlie’s, I’m OK with them).

I guess that if I had a different preconception in these matters I’d probably applaud the trend toward greater spirituality in movies. But when it’s expressed in such terms as golf clubs possessed by magic…well, you really have to be desperate for your soul to be stroked to get off on the stuff. The philosophy of Bagger Vance, if it can be termed as such, is summed up thus: “There’s a perfect shot out there…all we have to do is let it choose us.” Not only is this pretty useless as an insight into our existence – I’m told golf’s a bit harder than that as well.

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