29 January 2007 | kmd85
Another fantastic film about baseball and life from the makers of Change Up!
I saw Bad Boys of Summer at the 2007 Slamdance Festival in Park City last week. As filmmaker, Tiller Russell, mentioned in a Q&A, this documentary brought them and also brings us, as viewers, to a place few of us will (hopefully) get to experience, San Quentin Prison. Notorious for its riots, electric chair and Charles Manson, Russell and Mendell show us the human side of prison life.
In the opening scenes, we feel we've entered the prison, as a threatening looking convict turns directly to the camera and says, "What part No Cameras don't you understand?" Not at all exploitative, Russell and Mendell give us a complicated picture of life in prison as it is divided along racial and religious lines, with a set of complex rules regarding conduct that cannot be broken without dire consequences. The filmmakers gave cameras to the prisoners so that they could capture moments unavailable to outsiders. The prisoners, unsurprisingly, are amazingly aware of how their lives differ from those outside. For these men, the only link is baseball. There, the rules are the same, the measurements of a man very clear and historically committed.
Mendell's camera-work is edifying under what I imagine were less than perfect conditions of institutional fluorescent lighting, taking us from expressionist views of long lines of cells into the claustrophobic atmosphere of the single man's cell. We can feel the walls close in, especially when we are taken into Stretch's cell. A 6'8" pitcher, Stretch played for St. John's in the college world series. He practically has to fold himself into his bed where he shares with us his feelings about growing old in jail. One day he says, he noticed in the tiny mirror that he was grey. He doesn't know when it happened, if it happened overnight or if he just hadn't noticed. His family visits: his brother, ironically, a police chief and his mother fragile and in her 80's, seeing her son in jail for what could be the last time. Her comments provide the most heartbreaking moments of the film as she wonders aloud why the prisoners aren't given juice, as if he is still her little boy at summer camp, and yet he is in prison for murder and can never come home.
Teams come from the outside to play baseball against the San Quentin Giants. They are warned on entering that there is a no bargaining policy for hostages so that although they will try to keep them safe, their life will not be exchanged for a prisoner's freedom. And with that, they are told to have fun and play baseball. As they parade past the jeering prisoners lined up to watch the game, the dreadlocked prison bugler informs the visiting team, "There is no advantage in OUR house." As the golden hour sets in for the final scene, we realize this is not a film about redemption, these players are here for life or at least longer than any of us can imagine bearing, as Stretch says we don't know what life will bring so play every game as if it is your last.