6 March 2002 | rmax304823
Structuring the Unknowable
Where would we be without mythology? Up the creek. Cultural anthropologists have a respectable amount of information available on about four thousand independent societies, and every one of them has an organized system of myths that explains, among other things, where we came from, how we got here, and what hold us together.
This movie is a kind of case illustration of how it all works. "That championship season" -- a time in the long past when a group of now overgrown high school kids under the tutelage of a coach of limited mental means but considerable moral stature guided them to the top. Well, it wasn't simply a season, according to this film, but their Garden of Eden, their Golden Age.
The entire underpinning of the film is an allegory regarding religious mythology. It mirrors current society in that the myth has become hoary and is beginning to show many cracks. Lord knows people are staying away from mainstream churches (and other ideologies, such as Marxism) in droves. "The boys" have turned into philanderers, drunks, and shady businessmen, and their solidarity is falling apart. None of them is noble in any way. At critical moments, it is the "coach" and their faith in him that holds them together. And when, after all the arguments and recriminations and name-calling, they stare at their meaningless trophy and hold hands in an empty gymnasium, the scene must touch the stoniest heart.
The trophy, and the coach who gave it to them, don't amount to very much -- a cheap piece of metal symbolizing little, and a man now grown older who dispenses clumsy advice like -- "Boys, don't lose your poise." It isn't much but they hang onto it for the simple reason that they have nothing else. It is their little myth, and there is no replacement for it. John Ford made a similar point in "Steamboat Round the Bend," but his story was more optimistic. Will Rogers comes to manage a steamboat with an exhibit of old wax statues of mythological figures and historical persons like Napoleon. There is a distinct absence of customers because no one cares about seeing a likeness of Hercules anymore. What does Will Rogers do? He throws out the old costumes and dresses them in new, more modern, more "reform" garments. Romulus and Remus become Frank and Jesse James, and so forth. In other words, when the old myths are worn out, you create new ones that attract people. Joseph Campbell would have approved.
But these boys are shackled to the past and lack such resources. The film is well played and has many dramatic moments -- and humorous ones too. The coach expounding on a professional athlete's achievements and referring to him as "a splendid (N word)." A failed attempt to bury an elephant (!). I thought this movie was excellently done. Miller did a fine job of directing his own play and opening it up. Mitchum effortlessly plays the naive and well-intentioned Mentor. He should have received more recognition for his talents than he did, though, to be sure, he walked through some parts and chose others badly. "That Championship Season" isn't shown on TV very often. Too bad. It ought to be seen.