Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bitter Reality (TV): June 17, 1994


We are a nation of ambulance chasers and rubberneckers. We are a society drawn to sensationalism. We are America. We take sports too seriously. We take life and death too lightly. All too often, we obsess over scoreboard points while missing the point. We are shameful but unashamed. We know our faults and tend to accept them, even celebrate them. We are Americans. In this context, Brett Morgen’s contribution to ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” documentary series is the embarrassing portrait of America that we shouldn’t need but that we wholly deserve. It’s titled June 17, 1994, after the date of the events it chronicles, but it’s as much a mirror to our present as it is a snapshot of our past. Catch a few minutes here or there and you’ll think Morgen’s film is about a crazy day in sports history in which the New York Rangers celebrated their Stanley Cup victory with a parade, and the Knicks took on the Rockets in the NBA Finals, and the World Cup kicked off in Chicago, and Arnold Palmer played his final round at a U.S. Open and, not to be outdone, O.J. Simpson led police (and transfixed Americans) in a low-speed chase down a Los Angeles freeway. But all of that is just the setting of June 17, 1994; its subject is something else. It’s the story of us.

Morgen’s documentary, which is easily one of the finest of the “30 for 30” series, is a condemnation of America’s confused value system cleverly disguised as a leisurely trip down memory lane. Its greatest strength is its gracefulness, challenging thoughtful viewers without resorting to didacticism or heavy-handedness. Preach? Morgen wouldn’t dream of it. His film is void of traditional narration and talking-head interviews. In their place is a vibrant collage of news footage from that fateful day 16 years ago – stuff that aired, like Tom Brokaw’s bewildered coverage of Simpson’s quasi-escape attempt, and stuff that didn’t, like the multitude of clips showing news personalities chatting with their producers and cameramen, feverously trying to determine what to make of Simpson’s apparent admission-by-flight and how to cover it. In individual snippets, this footage is familiar (the white Ford Bronco cruising down I-5) or unremarkable (a Rangers fan in Manhattan showing off his freshly-inked Stanley Cup tattoo). In sum, however, it’s sobering, clearly exposing the unhealthy significance we place on sports (“Now I can die in peace,” says a 10-or-so kid of the Rangers’ victory) and the flippancy we often exhibit in the face of real-life tragedy, as if it’s a gladiatorial event offered up for our entertainment (the sight of people cheering the Simpson motorcade was disturbing in 1994 and it’s even more disquieting now that we know exactly what Simpson was running from).

Morgen never needs to come right out and call us misguided or otherwise guilty because we implicate ourselves by what we remember and what we don’t. The film’s most inspired touch is its juxtaposition of Simpson’s skedaddle with Palmer’s final competitive U.S. Open round – each event depicting an American icon coming to grips with life-altering circumstances in different ways. Simpson, aware he’ll cease to be a beloved hero, cowardly flees a gruesome reality of his own creation – an apparent suicide note left behind, a gun held to his head – frequently moaning through a phone call with a representative of the LAPD who tries to convince him not to “throw everything away,” as if he hadn’t already; Palmer, aware that his elite-level playing days are far behind him, holds his head high through a potentially humiliating round of 18 holes – golf humbles everyone – and in doing so reveals his dignity and integrity. Palmer’s performance is everything that’s noble about sports, a symbol of the reasons we fall in love with these games and their players. Simpson’s behavior is the bitter alternative, a grim reminder that our heroes are rarely as infallible off the playing field as they are on it. Which of these performances do we remember? Simpson’s, of course. We have a habit of paying more attention to controversy than to classiness, perhaps because in the sporting world we have a habit confusing class and charm.

Part of the allure of the Simpson scandal was due to our belief that he was just like Palmer, that he was a great man and a great sportsman, until all of a sudden he wasn’t. Simpson’s murder trial should have been the last lesson any of us needed that as much as might know these guys on the field or the TV screen, we never come close to truly knowing them. And yet the recent Tiger Woods scandal shows we still have a lot to learn. On a similar note: It turns out that one of the forgotten sports happenings of June 17, 1994, was a home run by Ken Griffey Jr. At the time, Griffey’s longball put him in the company of Babe Ruth as the fastest to 30 home runs in what would be a strike-shortened season. Yet even though Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds demonstrated in subsequent seasons that Ruthian numbers by modern athletes are to be distrusted, when Griffey retired just a few weeks ago several ESPN personalities offered no caveats when suggesting – more like declaring – that Griffey never used performance-enhancing drugs. As if any of us knows that for sure. As if we’ve never been fooled before. Tiger Woods and baseball’s steroids era aren't referenced in Morgen’s film, but in the supportive cheers of those who watched the Simpson freeway chase, convincing themselves that they were watching the actions of an innocent man, we should hear the past screaming at us to face our tendency for self-delusion.

Lest I come off as guiltless or self-righteous in all these observations, full disclosure: I vividly remember June 17, 1994. My high school sweetheart and I were set to celebrate our one-year anniversary with dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. Before we headed for the car, we turned on the TV and caught early footage of that white Ford Bronco driving down the freeway. We sat and watched. Our dinner reservation neared. I called the restaurant and pushed it back. We watched some more. The Bronco made it to Simpson’s Brentwood estate. Nothing much happened. We watched anyway. I called the restaurant and cancelled our reservation. We ordered pizza. Signaling the reality TV craze that was about to strike, my girlfriend and I surrendered to the empty spectacle. We weren’t alone. In the weeks and months afterward, writers mocked America’s fascination with Simpson’s low-speed chase, and rightfully so. In the end, nothing happened that was worth watching. (Although, had Simpson shot himself on live TV, don't you figure those same moralizers would have “coincidentally” turned on their TVs at just the right moment? Me too.) Then again, I contend Americans have since spent far more time watching far less compelling television – Real Housewives, anyone? – but I digress. The point is this: For all that I remembered about June 17, 1994, I’m blown away by all that I forgot and I’m saddened by all that I initially ignored. Morgen’s propulsive documentary is a fusion of history, social commentary and poetic cinematic storytelling. It’s a triumph. And for me, as a sports fan, TV entertainment consumer and human being, it’s also a reality check.


June 17, 1994 premieres tonight on ESPN at 10 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.

20 comments:

J.D. said...

Excellent review! Maybe your best yet for the "30 for 30" series. I think that anyone who was around on that fateful day remembers the whole O.J. Simpson spectacle. I remembe going to university at the time and I remember that it seemed like everyone dropped what they were doing and were riveted to the TV while this melodrama played out. Weird stuff, indeed. I am quite looking forward to this latest installment tonight.

Marilyn said...

I just finished watching this and agree that it is extremely disturbing. But then, I thought so at the time. I suggest, however, that it is human nature to be riveted by events such as the O.J. Simpson chase, just as many people slow down at car crashes, not only in America, but in other parts of the world. And, in fact, the whole world descended on the trial. This is not the first time a sensational trial has riveted a nation; consider the case of Madeleine Smith in 19th century Scotland. As for taking sports too seriously, the hooligans are in England, the riots are in Brazil and Italy; we are marshmallows when it comes to sports fanaticism.

I appreciate your call for a more civil society; we need one, and I agree that this film highlights some insane behavior on the LA freeway that was in some ways symptomatic of end of the American Dream. But might as well as a lion not to roar. It's human nature - universal.

Jason Bellamy said...

JD: Thanks for the compliment. I'm eager to hear what you think of the episode once you've seen it.

Marilyn: You've made a terrific argument! And perhaps I should have qualified some of my comments by noting that Americans aren't necessarily unusual. (My logic for not doing so is that I think June 17, 1994 is certainly a story of America, even if it's not about ways this country is unique.)

In general, I agree with you. There is something human-nature-ish about the way we respond to scandal. But it doesn't end there. Our thirst for scandal is very cultural, too.

To provide what might be a strange example, consider laughter: I'd argue that laughter is human nature, instinctual. And yet there are societies that laugh all the time and ones that laugh only rarely.

So while America certainly has a lot in common with other nations (which only makes sense, because we're mostly descendants of those nations), I think there are elements of June 17, 1994 that are very characteristically American. I think this film says more about what we accept as a society than it does about what we are (human), and that's the point I was trying to make.

For me, telling are those shots of reporters, photographers and cameramen swarming the courthouse and Simpson's estate. From a business perspective, I understand why so many of them chased that story. At the same time, however, I think: What are they chasing? Are they chasing a lead in a grisly murder, or are they chasing something closer to celebrity gossip? Both would be tied to scandal, but at least the first would seem worthy of the fuss, rather than distracting from it.

I guess my point is that our culture (shaped by what we willingly consume and by the media/entertainment entities that provide the product) heightens our arousal for this stuff. I think you're right that humans are probably built with the rubbernecking muscle. I just think Americans are especially skilled at flexing it, even if we aren't the only muscular nation.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, and one more thing ...

This doesn't disqualify Marilyn's larger point in any way, but I do think there's a difference between our response to the Simpson events of June 17, 1994, and our response to the subsequent Simpson trial. They're related, obviously, but the trial was a much more complicate animal. Its scandal element was a top draw, but there were other interesting things about it that were more substantive: the trial revealed interesting things about our legal system, about the LAPD, about how the bitterness of the LA riots remained, about the power of wealth, etc. Now, sure, the trial also gave us Kato Kaelin, and in many respects it was just like a long episode of Law & Order before its time.

And maybe if the Simpson trial wasn't so long, we might have remembered June 17, 1994, for things other than the white Ford Bronco. What's so interesting about this film is that it shows us a single day and what we looked away from in order to watch Simpson.

Marilyn said...

And Jason, that sort of negates your statement that we take sports too seriously and life and death too lightly. Any way you cut it, June 17 was a big day in sports around the country, yet the life-and-death drama of O.J. and the suicide note was the top story of the day. I remember talking with a friend about the round-the-clock coverage of the search for JFK, Jr.'s aircraft. He said the networks were all interested in the "money shot", aka, John John's dead body being fished from the deep. We are keenly interested in death, and that might have started even earlier, with the televised Vietnam War. That, I would say, is a uniquely American experience that may have shaped our psyches to turn to TV to sate our morbidity. The documentary The Bridge has an equally mesmerizing quality, which I noted in my review of it. Celebrity culture has always been with us; I submit that it is the media itself focusing on it to such a huge degree, crowding out other types of coverage, that led audiences to want it more. I'm an editor, and I know that I can create perceptions by the information I choose to cover. With the takeover of American media by tabloid king Rupert Murdoch, the tail started wagging the dog.

J.D. said...

Watched this last night and aside from the whole O.J. thing which was very unsettling to watch again, I was surprised at just how moving the Arnold Palmer footage was, esp. the brief interview bit when he was on the links and how choked up he got. For a legend of the sport like him to show such emotion was very powerful to watch. I like that, as you pointed out, Jason, there were no talking heads to put things into perspective - just let the footage speak for itself. And boy did that Palmer footage ever do that! Incredible stuff.

Jason Bellamy said...

"yet the life-and-death drama of O.J. and the suicide note was the top story of the day"

Hmm. Yeah, as someone who watched it, I was certainly drawn by the "life-and-death drama," but probably more the "drama" of it than the "life-and-death" part. Now, that's just me. But my point about taking life and death too lightly is that I think Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman got lost in the chaos that day. And, while I have no real sympathy for Simpson, even Simpson's life-and-death was somewhat lost. Watching this film, hearing Simpson talk to whoever from the LAPD, hearing his agony, learning his suicidal thoughts from that letter he left behind, there's a real person in there. (And a monster, obviously.) And so my point in the review is that I don't feel like most of us were watching these events feeling for the dead or feeling for O.J. so much as we were consuming it like it was a made-for-TV spectacle. Maybe I'm wrong about that. I have no doubt there were exceptions. But that was my point about taking life-and-death too lightly.

That said, it's an interesting idea that coverage of the Vietnam War might have been a turning point in our reaction to televised gruesomeness.

And when it comes to the media's role in our snowballing celebrity obsessions, we agree entirely.

Thanks so much for weighing in here, Marilyn. Thought-provoking comments, as always.

Jason Bellamy said...

JD: The Palmer stuff is really powerful. And the cinematic storytelling (editing) is flawless. There are a couple moments late in which Morgen mixes and matches the audio and video, like placing the hockey parade footage over the cheers of Simpson's supporters. This film is filled with thoughtful and challenging juxtapositions.

Marilyn said...

Jason, I find your blog and "The Conversations" the most thought-provoking on the Internet. Thanks for giving people like me the intelligent discussions and observations you do. I'm especially glad you covered "30 for 30," which has interested me greatly.

Allison said...

First of all, Real Housewives is, um, a GREAT show.

Second of all, I was somewhat mesmerized by this particular 30 for 30. Which almost makes me feel sad. Because I do get caught up in the drama of it. However, I would never be one of the people running down the street cheering him on. That was particularly disturbing.

I watched it with Laef, who had never seen any of it. He was only 12 years old so he wasn't as captivated by it back then. We were both in awe of all the great sporting achievements that took place that day because, as you mention, I don't remember a single one of them.

Awesome recap, JB.

foxofbama said...

Great Review. I linked your review on my blog.
Brett came to North Alabama in 92 and did one of his first documentaries; this one on my Mother's Hometown of Collinsville.
I was his local consultant so I feel like I have a vested ineterest in his career (lol).
Very Proud of him.
As Brett alludes, June17 among other things gave us the Kardashians; and his choice of David Byrnes Heaven Song was pitch perfect. For a while I thought he was gonna segueway into I wouldn't live there if they paid me.
So congrats to Brett for another great chapter in a stellar career, and congrats to you for a grand review.

As an aside, will love to see what you do with the Sundance hit to gather bigger release soon, Deb Granik's Winters Bone.
Hardscrabble life in NW Arkansas.

Jason Bellamy said...

Marilyn: Wow. Thanks again. It's also especially great to hear that people are fond of The Conversations. With a sparring partner like Ed, they're a heck of a lot of fun to do. But obviously they're also more labor intensive than the average post. But all the effort is worth it if anyone is having as much fun reading the conversations as we're having creating them.

Allison: Ha. First of all, in fairness to Real Housewives, it got punishment in part because I'm bitter that those wannabe Salahi's are going to be rewarded for their disingenuousness. As for the doc, it's hard for me to imagine watching it without the O.J. part feeling familiar. For me, that's part of its power. But I certainly think it's edited in such a way that youngins like Laef can get wrapped up in it.

Foxofbama: Thanks for the link and the kind words. I agree with you on the song choice at the end. As for Winter's Bone, I'm hoping to get to that one this weekend. So maybe a review next week sometime? Regardless, hope this isn't your last visit to The Cooler.

Clarence Ewing said...

Hi, Jason. I saw the doc this week - you're right, it's easily one of the best of the series so far. The story-telling style was fantastic. With the flood of media sources available, it's almost like having a narrator would decrease the impact of looking at all those events.

I remember where I was when the white Bronco chase happened. I was sitting in a bar in Boston with a blind date, and even with the TVs in the background being drowned out by the crowd, we could tell something was going on. The last time I got that feeling was the morning of September 11th.

It's interesting how on that day World Cup Soccer opened in Chicago. The U.S. World Cup still has the all-time attendance record for the tournament, but soccer is still the butt of jokes with many in the mainstream sports media. Now that ESPN has bought the US broadcast rights to this year's games, that will change a little bit.

Fritz Novak said...

Great review. When looking for a money shot, this documentary had clip from OJ's retirement speech where he said his greatest joy in football was the cheers and applause of the crowd. That really puts the chase into perspective. While clearly a confused, desperate act, I felt like that clip really showed his motivation during the Bronco chase: a man who couldn't forgive himself looking desperately for absolution from people who believed he could do no wrong. Before he figured out if he could live with himself, he needed to know if the American public could live with him. It's that shot that tells us it wasn't the hostage negotiator who convinced him to live, it was the people looking on from the freeway.
It wasn't indictment of our collective train-wreck fascination, it was an indictment of how we encourage famous people to blind themselves to the truth.

Jason Bellamy said...

Clarence: I was on the West Coast, so it was pretty easy to become glued to the TV. That must have been an odd sight on Eastern time. Interesting. And good comparison to 9/11.

Fritz: I agree with you about the telling power of the HOF speech and Simpson's longing for the cheers. That's an interesting reading, however, that the people kept him alive. I'd never looked at it that way. But maybe he saw all those people and somehow convinced himself that he could be beloved again. It's hard to imagine that's the case. More than anything, I suspect he just couldn't go through with his suicide. But, again, that's an interesting argument. You're convincing me. Thanks for weighing in!

Kevin J. Olson said...

Okay, so I finally have caught up with my DVR after being gone on vacation, and I have to say that this was definitely my favorite installment of "30 for 30" so far. The juxtaposition, as you point out Jason, of Arnold Palmer's final round of golf and OJ Simpson was really powerful. I also was astonished and elated to see that the director refrained from using interviews and narration...it made it all the more powerful for those of us that lived through it.

I remember being in 7th or 8th grade when the OJ trial was going on, and it was on every TV in our school. School essentially came to a stop so we could watch the acquittal of OJ...and now after watching this doc I realize that was the beginning of the reality TV craze. I still can't over how 95 million people watched the Bronco slowly drive down the highway that day, or how they kept cutting away from the basketball game, or how callous those announcers were during the baseball game...

What a crazy time.

Your thoughts here, Jason, are spot-on as usual. JUNE 17, 1994, along with RUN RICKY RUN have been my two favorite installments so far because they show how powerful a subject sports can be when you don't filter it through all of the talking heads that like to deify or destroy, hyperbolize or waterdown, sports stories like Bill Simmons or Rick Reilly or Joe Buck.

Great, great stuff, Jason.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate that. Yes, I think this is my favorite of the "30 for 30" series, too. And Run, Ricky, Run is right up there as well, just for the surprising intimacy of it. But in terms of cinematic artistry, it's this film, hands down.

You know, one of my favorite aspects of the film failed to make my review: It's the final shot, during the credits, of the Ford Bronco being towed off as evidence: It's dark outside and the hysteria is over and now the Bronco, which millions watched practically without blinking for hours, is going off into the night without anyone paying attention. It's the perfect encapsulation of how we find our reality obsessions, chew them up and then spit them out, often never to think of them again.

Back to the O.J. trial: I was a freshman in college when the verdict was passed down. It was to be announced in the middle of my Communications 101 class, so the teacher let the 250 of us in the auditorium out early so we could go back and watch. We were hardly alone. Everyone in the dorm was gathered around TVs waiting and watching. (Another TV event of that year was Cal Ripken passing Lou Gehrig.)

Hope you've DVRed The Two Escobars; it's great, too.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Yeah, that final image is great. I was thinking about how it was the perfect symbol of our societies consumption of reality "stars". I did indeed DVR The Two Escobars. I'll probably watch it tomorrow morning.

ejaz14357 said...

I remember that it seemed like everyone dropped what they were doing and were riveted to the TV while this melodrama played out. Weird stuff, indeed. I am quite looking forward to this latest installment tonig

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