The Still Reppin’ column looks at films playing the Boston area’s repertory theaters, universities and museums. Movies considered will range from silent-era epics to undistributed millennial-era indies. A guide to the cities screens, written for all local film-watchers — but particularly for those tired of the digitized monotony of the contemporary superhero-sized multiplex cinema.
We’re in small town America, 1976. A woman, exceptional in her chosen craft, is the latest addition to a group of individuals already outcasted within their field. One of the more outspoken bigots objects to the gender-neutral addition to the ‘staff’ anyway. “Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, booger-eating morons,” he spouts off incensed, like a caricature in a Spike Lee montage, “and now a girl?” Typical enough, but the circumstances are anything but. We’re not in an office, this isn’t a boardroom protected by closed doors. The bigot looks to be about 12 years old, and we’re on a little league baseball field. This is The Bad News Bears.
It probably goes without saying that watching a child of that age spout off slurs with the practiced professional manner of an office drone provides an inherent transgressive charge. So when we talk about the original Bad News Bears, playing at the Brattle later this evening, that’s what we talk about: The language. All conversations regarding this movie eventually arrive at the same one-sentence conclusion: “Man, isn’t it crazy that you could have kids talking like that back then?” Under director Michael Ritchie, though, this movie is much more than shit’s and fuck’s. Ritchie crafted a series of satires about American Exceptionalism in the ’70s — The Candidate, Smile, and Semi-Tough among them — and Bears may be the most incisive of the bunch.
The movie centers around Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau,) a drunken minor-league washout now cleaning pools in Anytown. (We first meet him swilling a beer-and-whisky cocktail from the driver’s seat of his car.) A local father has sued to allow for unrestricted inclusion in the local little league, which means that all the hapless unathletic kids can play ball, so long as they find someone to play coach. Enter Buttermaker, who’s more than happy to spend a few hours on the field in exchange for booze money. (That places Bears at an intriguing moment within the development of parenting techniques: The adults here have a post-60s idealism regarding their kid’s ability to “have it all,” but we haven’t yet reached the age of helicopter parents either, so there’s no qualms about leaving the little ones with an angry drunk.)
His madcap Bears quickly develop a rivalry with the stone faced, dead-serious Yankees, building to a standard-issue slobs vs. snobs finale, because this is a sports movie. What sets Bears apart – from other sports films, or from Richard Linklater’s 2004 remake — is Ritchie’s absolute refusal to lionize his slobs. He doesn’t believe in the myth of movies like Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds: his kids are no more or less moral than the assholes they’re up against.
And so, under Ritchie’s unsparing and unsentimental eye, they bitch and moan when a girl joins the team. They jab each other endlessly over personal differences. They squabble like — well, like Americans. White against black, old against young, man against woman, right against left, poindexters clashing with “booger-eating morons.” Behind all the comedy, The Bad News Bears is engaging, very directly, with the fractured race and gender relations of the post-60s workplace, and of the society that fostered it.
Ritchie’s visual style works to accentuate the absurdism inherent in a bunch of diverse Americans working together and yearning unsuccessfully for harmony. His images undercut the myth of American unity as much as his script does, by turning the traditionally serious into the exceptionally silly. Check out the way he often places his camera behind the pitcher at a slight angle, the same way ESPN does — only here, instead of 90 m.p.h. fastballs and immaculate double plays, we see kids bumbling around the field, knocking into one another, tripping over their own shoelaces. It’s like Monday Night Baseball’s DNA was crossed with Bugsy Malone.
Ritchie isn’t settling for a small allegory here, though. His satire attacks nearly all the elements of little league that instill a sense of ego and competition in children – like, say, the false bravado of performative good sportsmanship (the winning teams in the film always cheer for the losers, as if even courtesy is nothing more than a competition to be won.) And really – I’m only being halfway sarcastic here — what is little league but a microcosm of American society? Throughout his early films, Ritchie saw through the bullshit of ‘social progression,’ to the selfish prejudice that it left unaddressed in its wake. He saw that, no matter how advanced or even-handed his public stance, man remains a sloppy buffoon — an untalented little leaguer who won’t hesitate to tell a woman to get off his field, even if it means a ground ball is going to sail through his legs.
So yeah, now women can join the workplace, and now black can play alongside white, and so on and so forth. But that doesn’t change the fact that these kids still separate themselves along lines decided by appearance. It doesn’t change the fact that racism and sexism still run rampant. “You should be reminded, from time-to-time,” a teammate notes to the young bigot referenced up top, “that you’re one of the only people on this team who’s not a jew, spic, nigger, pansy, or a booger-eating moron; so you better cool it, or we may be disposed to kick the crap out of you.” Take a look at the gendered pay rates at whatever office you might be currently working at. That’s a reminder we still need.
THE BAD NEWS BEARS. THE BRATTLE, 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. FRI 11.7. 7:30pm/$7-10. brattlefilm.org