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Remember the Titans

(Boaz Yakin, USA, 2000)


 

Sports Intersection

 

When it comes to sorting out movie genres, we need to be both more flexible and less flexible than the usual categories allow.

 

More flexible, because labels like thriller, fantasy or adventure specify very little beyond a very vague, general content, setting and tone. To properly classify any given film, we often have to think about a particular cycle or sub-genre that gave rise to it, the elements from other genres with which it crossbreeds, and the types of confusions it has caused in viewers and reviewers who can’t figure out exactly how to label it. (What is the genre of Citizen Kane [1941], for example? It fits at least half-a-dozen niches.)

 

Less flexible, because sometimes all this microscopic hair-splitting of labels and categories obscures something big and obvious, something that is shared across many different kinds of films. That is the case with something we could call the team movie, which is the large basket where I’d gladly place Boaz Yakin’s Remember the Titans.

 

There are many kinds of teams in popular cinema: sports teams, military units, dance troupes – to name just three. Whether we are – in conventional genre terms – in a sports film, a war drama or a musical, the same, basic issues recur: leadership, group dynamics, the friction of different values and personalities, the external influence of larger social and political forces, and the resolution of all conflict within the co-ordinated action of playing, fighting, or dancing & singing.

 

In fact, Remember the Titans itself regularly insists on the cross-generic nature of its central themes. Beginning with the music on the soundtrack: sports anthems scored for brass bands are often indistinguishable from military marches; and, once the lines of cheerleaders add their youthful choreography, it also turns into a teen musical for a few moments. As well, the device of the group sing-along (in a locker room, or on a bus) functions here – as it does in many genres, including romantic comedy – as a way of dissolving tension and unifying the diverse members of a group in literal harmony.

 

More dramatically, a key scene shows Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) leading his team – mysteriously at first – on a run that takes them far from their usual training field. They end up at Gettysburg Cemetery, a spot that commemorates a turning point in the American Civil War. In a fine moment of intersectional speechifying, Boone yokes the historic struggle between North and South USA to the seething racism that is still dividing his own team. Furthermore, in the annals nation’s mythology, the Battle of Gettysburg has a bittersweet significance, carrying a pathos of failure expressed in many subsequent movies, songs and other artworks: it is where many Southerners died, and the North won, at the cost of a bloody victory – “I killed my brother with malice in my heart”, as Boone evokes it. His ultimate message is sombre but pointed: “Take a lesson from the dead: if we don’t come together, right now on this hallowed ground, then we, too, will be destroyed”.

 

I have already dropped the doubtless trendy 21st century term intersectionality above. It is one of the latest cultural buzzwords and, as such, can easily put people off grasping its real and useful significance as a tool, a way to approach media texts. Intersectional feminism, for instance, prompts us to see problems of gender and sexual orientation not only in isolation, but also in the context of other social factors: race, class, wealth, employment, social status, religious denomination, and so on. Within any social issue, in short, multiple factors are going to be in play; these factors may even contradict each other in difficult, volatile ways.

 

As a matter of fact, I think popular movies have been well aware of the value of intersectionality for quite a long time – long before the term became hip. And especially in a genre such as melodrama. When the young heroine of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), for instance, decides to pass for white (because of her fair skin colour) and enter high society – thereby abandoning and shaming her black, working class mother – we are already deep in an intersectional pile-up of hot problems. Likewise, when the tormented, Irish-American hero of Samuel Fuller’s melodramatic Western Run of the Arrow (1957) chooses to become a member of the Native American Sioux tribe – a lifestyle change triggered by his disdain for the South’s surrender in the Civil War – we are witnessing a heady conjunction of diverse political tensions. Further on in American film history, the much-maligned Civil War melodrama Mandingo (1975) builds to a remarkable scene in which a black servant seems set to murder his tyrannical, white owner – yet, even at this high moment of seemingly righteous revolt, the servant still defers by addressing his victim as “Master”! Some intersections, it would seem, are pretty hard to prise apart completely.

 

In the study of film, it is wise to keep a threefold vision in mind. Films unfold, all at once, on narrative, stylistic and semantic levels. In the best, richest films, a move forward on any of these levels is accompanied by an intensification on one or both of the other levels. So, for example, the moment that a character comes to an important realisation will also signal a modulation of the film’s style, how that event is shown and treated; and this point in the plot will also serve as a deepening of the film’s more general consideration of an overarching idea or theme. On all three levels, what we seek to uncover is a certain pattern, system or logic – how it grows and develops across the film, and why.

 

Remember the Titans is strong on the levels of narrative and semantic structure, and less inventive on the stylistic plane. Director Boaz Yakin (Fresh [1994]; Safe [2012] – the latter not to be confused with Todd Haynes’ film of the same name) likes to stick with a tried and true repertory of techniques, such as shallow focus (characters are clear while backgrounds are blurry), a sombre orchestral score by Trevor Rabin to underline serious moments, and the alternation of dialogue-heavy scenes with rapid montages set to a merry playlist of 1970s pop hits (by Sly the Family Stone, Eric Burdon, Cat Stevens, Ike & Tina Turner, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, etc).

 

Intersectionality is expressed in narrative actions and events – characters playing together, fighting each other, discussing their allegiances – but it bears, most of all, upon semantic structure. Here, we are dealing with the general, social and cultural values that characters represent or embody. Like many films, Remember the Titans begins with stark oppositions – whites literally on one side of the training room, blacks on the other, each groups refusing to acknowledge or relate to the other – but then begins to construct mid-way rapprochements, points of compromise or sharing between particular individuals that, bit by bit, bring about a workable unification of the entire group.

 

Music carries much of the semantic work and emotional power of the film. Apart from its strong affects when it accompanies a montage of training scenes or the winning of an important, competitive game, it is also functions within scenes, as a token of both difference and exchange between characters. Take the figure of Lastik (Ethan Suplee). He is not especially smart, good-looking or even talented in football playing – unlike his opposite number among the white characters, “Sunshine” Bass (Kip Pardue), whom the film strongly indicates is gay. But what Lastik has going for him is enthusiasm, exuberance, a lack of guile, sheer gumption – and a love of black, soul music.

 

It is Lastik’s delightfully off-key, full-throated singing in a “black” style that helps reconcile the team. The same goes, in a less emphatic way, for the character of Bosley (Ryan Gosling), who is shown, early on, dancing stiffly to “all white” country’n’western music – but later grooves to a looser, more soulful rhythm. It is intriguing to note, within this semantic system of the film’s music, that the central sing-along tune – “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”, which crosses the film to the extent of even being hummed in the closing, funeral scene – is in fact the work of a white band (Steam), although many listeners casually mistake it for a black, soul song. The film, in all these ways, offers us the hopeful, Utopian vision of a fluid “melting pot” of American culture.

 

The central relationship in Remember the Titans is between Boone and Yoast. This goes through many narrative and semantic twists. Both men have their shadow or back-up, an assistant figure of the same race. However, Yoast will finally break with his racist companion, just as star player Bertier (Ryan Hurst) breaks with his best friend, a vicious redneck. Yoast – like Bertier’s girlfriend, Emma (Kate Bosworth) – has to “cross the tracks” and arrive at an affirmation of a change in his values: “You’ve taught this city how to trust the soul of a man, rather than the look of him – and it’s about time I joined the club”.

 

However, this affirmation cannot come too quickly; if it did, the drama would stop long before its appointed deadline. The film includes mirroring scenes where each of these men, Boone and Yoast, has to hold back and give the other the chance to make a daring move in game strategy on the field. It is only through this kind of action that their mutual respect can grow. There is also a minor intrigue related to Boone’s psychology – what students of Greek mythology would call his hubris or self-centred pride. This brief, rather artificially imposed theme takes shape when Yoast counters Boone’s constant emphasis on the need to win, using a properly intersectional question: “Is this even about football anymore? Or is it just about you?” Boone is consequently troubled by self-doubt during a domestic scene, but his wife, Carol (Nicole Ari Parker), swiftly dispels it: if he is “blinded by his own ambition”, then “the world could use more” of that ambition. This is how the film shunts itself back onto its central, semantic track.

 

Although you will encounter much less-than-useful, hopelessly rigid and prescriptive material in books and online on “how to structure a winning Hollywood screenplay” and similar tosh, it is indeed important to pay attention to the basic building blocks of plot structure in narrative cinema. With this caveat: loose conventions exist, but each individual story will usually have its own demands and challenges, thus leading to an adaptation of the given models. Remember the Titans offers a fine example of this adaptive process.

 

Arguments rage back and forth, between the self-appointed film industry gurus in their scriptwriting guideline manuals, as to what the ideal form of narrative structure is. Despite the lofty (and frequently pretentious) appeals to Aristotle, ancient mythologies, the Bible and sundry other untouchable sources, the truth is out there, evident in the diversity of cinema itself: there is no ideal form. All the models that preach, variously, three acts, four parts, ten sections, and so on, should be approached with due scepticism. Very few movies – perhaps only the very worst! – perfectly fit any of these schemas.

 

It is, however, the case that films – all stories, in fact, right down to the shortest or smallest – are structured, in some way, into parts and sections. There is no set number, ratio or shape that determines them in advance. It our task as critics or teachers to determine, in every single case, what these parts are. This is not an arid, merely academic procedure; it goes to the very heart of what all scriptwriters do, often quite consciously. The central point is to recognise the broad moods of the story and, especially, the transitions between them – what screenwriters call the turning points that (to use Kristin Thompson’s apt phrase) “swing the story in another direction”. In Remember the Titans, one of these key turning points comes when Bertier is involved in a car accident that renders him paraplegic.

 

Most narratives – certainly in the mainstream, Hollywood tradition – follow a standard succession of stages and moods. Here, I will adapt elements of Thompson’s agreeably flexible terminology. First, there is the exposition, which can be trickier than many realise: establishing the time and place of the story; setting out the central characters and making them easily identifiable to us in the audience (Remember the Titans has a large, central cast); laying out the general, social world before the events of the story create a transformative turbulence in this setting; planting hints and possibilities from which the main lines of the plot will spring.

 

Once the motor of the story – usually kicked off by what is called an inciting incident – is ticking over, we enter a phase of the story’s development. This often resembles an upward curve: some initial successes and breakthroughs for the characters (whatever their activity or goal), some leeway made.

 

Then, very frequently, there is a downturn: a period of catastrophe where everything goes wrong, one disaster at a time, due to various factors both internal and external to the characters. Everybody hits rock bottom, as the saying goes. Finally, fate turns due to another upswing, which drives us on to the end of the film – although we cannot say in advance whether the tale will end optimistically or pessimistically. By using a framing story, Remember the Titans hits several different mood-notes simultaneously at the end: the football season itself ends in triumph, but Bertier’s funeral reminds us, melancholically, that the general, social struggle against racism goes on: as Sheryl says in voice-over, “Black and white … here we make it work every day”.

 

Remember the Titans customises for itself a combination of the basic four-part structure I have just outlined, with the conventional Hollywood wisdom of a three act model derived from theatre. It mixes different conventions in this way because the story material and its themes demand their own, tweaked shape. Let’s work through this process, paying particular attention to its first, expositional part.

 

The film begins and ends with a brief, framing device, set ten years ahead of the main story: characters are gathering at the funeral of the as-yet-unnamed Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst). This gives the story, from the very outset, a tone that is both elegiac and triumphant – imagine how different (or neutral) the film would feel if it began simply with Boone arriving as a newcomer to T.C. Williams High School. It also introduces a voice-over narrator who is frequently present as a privileged observer of events, but is not in any sense a central player” in them: Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere). In a typically crafty piece of Hollywood sleight-of-hand, Sheryl’s “telling” of the tale on the soundtrack will sometimes disappear for long stretches, and we will be given access to many events she could not possibly have witnessed.

 

Now to the central action of the film. Sports movies – like war movies – have to make crucial choices about which aspects of plot they will emphasise, and what proportion to give these respective parts. In both sport and war, there is often an initial phase devoted to recruitment and training. Then there is usually a structured, preordained series of games, or battles. (Films about music/dance teams often follows exactly the same template: formation of a troupe, then the various stages of a competitive, “play-off” process.)

 

Remember the Titans gives a great deal of time – at least, in comparison with most Hollywood movies – to its first, expositional part, which lasts 44 minutes of a total 108 before the end credits roll. This is because the filmmakers (especially screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard) have decided to squeeze the entire recruitment and training process into the exposition. The rest of the narrative is structured on the season of competitive football matches – given a special, cumulative tension (i.e., juicing the stake of the drama) by Boone being informed that, if he loses a single match, he is out of a job. (It is worth noting, in passing, that serial TV is currently rewriting these conventions even more radically: the entire first season of GLOW [2017- ], which is about women’s televised wrestling in the 1980s, only gets as far, in ten episodes, as the first, historic telecast.)

 

The long, 44 minute opening of Remember the Titans resembles, if considered on its own, a veritable mini-movie: it dramatises a large set of problems and resolutions between the various players (having deftly established who each one of them is, and what they stand for), and also between Boone and the somewhat reluctant, white sidekick who is now deposed of his coaching job, Yoast (Will Patton). The Gettysburg Cemetery scene I have already discussed comes at a crucial moment in this exposition.

 

However, there is a deeper, semantic meaning to the extended exposition chosen by the makers of Remember the Titans. Within the rigours of training and playing, the members of the team figure out how to get along and work together. In other words, they achieve a small-scale model of a better, more liveable society. But the moment they emerge from this cocoon-like environment, they are confronted with what begins the film’s second major part: an ugly, uncomfortable reminder that violent racism still exists, at school and in the wider society.

 

This apparition sets in motion the central theme of this film, and indeed many sports films: the game itself, what happens on the field (and the process that gets everyone onto that field) is a precious, transcendent space, a “magic circle”. But can this circle ever widen, can it influence society as a whole? Or is it, on the contrary, a merely apolitical illusion of a bogus “innocence” – in the vein of Diego Maradona’s immortal declaration in Emir Kusturica’s 2008 documentary about him, “the ball is always innocent”? This is a dilemma that sports films – more intensely then war movies or team-musicals – constantly debate, going back and forth in their narrative-semantic structure before reaching some provisional conclusion.

 

The final spoken words of the film (from Sheryl, once again) are its title: “Before we reach for hate, always, always, we remember the Titans”. This idea of a collective remembering, a commemorative celebration, is central to sports movies, perhaps more than any other genre. To anybody not into sports, this obsession can seem strange and inexplicable: once a game or season is over, surely players and fans alike just go on to the next one? But nothing could be further from the truth. Here, we revisit the charged notion of a sports game as a kind of ritual activity, a human interaction that, within its strictly defined and protected limits, comes to represent an ideal world or Utopia. To “remember the Titans” is to recall, into one’s soul, a possible human Utopia.

 

Another sports movie from 1986, Harold Becker’s Vision Quest (retitled in Australia as Crazy For You) can help to explain this complex phenomenon. In it,

Louden (Matthew Modine) is well on the way to winning a wrestling competition. Yet, due to a combination of factors, he loses heart just before the big, final event. He goofs off in order to visit an older, no-nonsense friend, Elmo (J.C. Quinn); and, surprisingly, finds him dressing up to attend the match. Louden dismisses the game of wrestling as trivial and ephemeral: “It’s not that big a deal, it’s six lousy minutes on the mat, if that”. Elmo responds with a story about another famous soccer player, Pelé:

 

Had a room here one day. Watching a Mexican channel on TV. Hell, I know nothing about Pelé. I was watching what this guy can do with a ball on his feet. Next thing I know, he jumps up into the air and flips into a somersault and kicks the ball in upside down and backwards. The goddamn goalie never knew what hit him. Pelé gets excited and he rips off his jersey and starts running around the stadium, waving it around over his head. Everybody screaming in Spanish. I’m here sitting alone in my room, and I start crying. Yeah, that’s right, I start crying. Because another human being, of the species which I happen to belong to, can kick a ball, lift himself, and the rest of us sadass human beings, up to a better place to be, if only for a minute. Let me tell you, kid, it was pretty goddamned glorious. It ain’t the six minutes. It’s what happens in that six minutes.

 

 

A shorter version of this text appeared in Screen Education, no. 89 (March 2018).

MORE Yakin: A Price Above Rubies, Uptown Girls

© Adrian Martin November 2017


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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