Let’s face it; when it comes to films celebrating men-in-action (war or sport, it’s the same symbolic arena), anything less full-on than Top Gun (1986) rings as refreshing and commendable.
Hoosiers is such a disarming and charming film in this regard that it’s almost impossible to dislike. Not that there’s a single major element in it which is not soft-edged, rosy-glowed and predictable. The film keeps setting them up to be duly knocked down: yes, all these hick townspeople nasty to Norman (Gene Hackman) will come around in the final cheer; yes, antagonistic Myra (Barbara Hershey) will fall in love with him; yes, the recalcitrant, troubled basketball star (Maris Valainis as Jimmy Chitwood) will come out of his incommunicado; yes, the colourfully named Shooter Flatch (Dennis Hopper), the town drunk, will get his shit together … and so on, all set to a typically “rousing” Jerry Goldsmith orchestral score.
And it runs through a few familiar registers of American affect: team spirit, democracy, acceptance, finding yourself, making the big effort. But it’s all resolutely small town/little person stuff, with the laid-back tempo of middle age (Hackman is great in a non-pressurised role), and the light and air of the lazy, open spaces.
Hoosiers is one of those utterly conventional but also completely state-of-the-art mainstream narratives on which film criticism regularly draws a blank. What the TV-trained writer and director (respectively, Angelo Pizzo and David Anspaugh) intuitively know is a quite complex and subtle moment-to-moment rhetoric of pacing, gesture and image-sound relations that someone will get around to describing in about ten years time (if we’re lucky). It’s this rhetoric, more than any theme as such, that keeps you in the movie as you watch it. Most reviewers, too, will find little to say about this film other than that it is entertaining (and it certainly is); but entertainment, as a whole art and craft, is anything but transparent.
In the meantime, there’s Dennis Hopper. If hip mainstream movies are indeed splintering off into ambivalent, incoherent, ironic messes, and if our superficial postmodern world is really going down the tubes, then I want to take my last ride with Hopper. This guy is amazing; the reason he is cinema’s most exciting icon/emblem at present is that, no matter what he does in whichever movie, he always seems to have wandered in from another time, another scene, and definitely another film. He’s the return of the repressed that you never sensed you had repressed.
Hopper’s speciality is now the mad, displaced, diseased father – of course, because he’s the 1960s, and what he gave birth to was the 1980s. Hoosiers, as already stated, is a slight, fragile displacement from the big-boy arena of Top Gun. Even at the heart of this film, however, Hopper hollows out another space, one that is more pained, more grimly comic, dirtier and sadder.
When the big, final cheer at the last victory match comes, you and I won’t be on the court, we won’t even be in the crowd – we’ll be in a hospital ward (again – see the ultimate scenes of River's Edge ), straitjacketed and hungover with Dennis Hopper. Remember that.
MORE Anspaugh: Moonlight and Valentino
© Adrian Martin May 1987