Love and Basketball Bids to Become a Grassroots Hit

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It would be demeaning to call Love and Basketball a feminist movie. First, because its love story (girl weighs sacrificing career for housewifery) gets undeniably soppy; but most of all because the history of feminists embracing films about black women has been...nil. Will white feminists accept this black ball jockey's tale as worthy of their consideration and mission? In the past three decades feminist film critics and scholars have notoriously left movies like Claudine, The Color Purple and Beloved hanging in the wind. All the same, Love and Basketball makes the essential issues of female independence come bracingly alive?more so than the berserk, working-class nonsense of Erin Brockovich-?entirely through Lathan's credible tude and athletic moves. Her fresh traits have greater impact than her simply falling in love with a childhood sweetheart (the next-door neighbor Quincy McCall, played by Omar Epps).

Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood authentically follows a girl's sense of self. Not many male directors know to include priceless moments like Monica saying to her sister as she plaits her hair, "Make me look pretty." That's not mere vanity but a yielding to convention. The socially ingrained tradition of female narcissism reveals Monica's powerful ambivalence about her own femininity. Though physically close to her girly big sister, primping's just not Monica's normal style. As her sister makes her over, she resembles a young Sheryl Lee Ralph and enters a school dance in a tight white "move sumpin'" dress. Monica's own sexiness makes her feel awkward; it's a new kind of femininity that she hasn't allowed herself to explore or enjoy. "Do you really think I'm beautiful?" she asks (like Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, only women directors add these nuances). This is tantamount to the cycles of conflicting emotion that Hilary Swank portrayed in Boys Don't Cry. Recognizing its specialness would do much to underscore women's daily psychological struggle. This dance?comparable to Katharine Hepburn's awkwardness at the dance in the 1935 Alice Adams?highlights an actress demonstrating the crucial fact that identity is based on a discovery of feeling more than gender or class. The true wonder of Love and Basketball is Lathan's?Monica's?naturally defiant, elegant carriage.

Thankfully, Prince-Bythewood doesn't turn Monica's dilemma into a conflict with herself. Much of Monica's charm is that she knows herself, knows her goals?an unpopular truth usually disavowed, ironically, by the most driven moviemakers. It's exasperating and dull that the film turns into a love story after all. What keeps it perking is the spectacle of Monica going for it, because her goal is always against the odds. Not since Robert Towne's Personal Best has a movie been so appreciative of the beauty of accomplished female athletes. These basketball Amazons are, each and every one, gorgeous. (But does cinematographer Ray Villalobos ever look at his footage? He makes both skin and background dull! These women have to be spectacular in and of themselves.) The stronger they look, the more surprising and overpowering is their loveliness. MC Lyte's "Lyte as a Rock" makes the perfect theme song.

But the male stuff kinda drags?the adulterous father, the weak father, the egotistical young man (who just isn't worthy of Monica except that she wants him so badly). The women's stuff stays imminently watchable: there's Debbi Morgan's astounding balance of forlorn sexiness as an unhappy wife and, particularly, scenes where marvelous Alfre Woodard argues with her daughter, a testy Monica, defending a woman's right to be "prissy." (Maybe the confrontation works simply because of Woodard's own idiosyncrasy.) Love and Basketball is a movie to make you respect the idiosyncrasy of (black) women. It's a tribute to strength without piety?appreciating the nerve women sometimes have to assert. The one false note is Monica's sexual initiation (a situation portrayed more sensitively in The Wood); Prince-Bythewood underscores Monica's deflowering with a cover of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work"?the great ode used for the birth sequence of She's Having a Baby?but here sung by Maxwell in an out-of-control falsetto. It's an awesome tune but this version is a black bourgie gaffe. My favorite moment of all comes when Monica, playing for a pro team in Europe, asks a teammate to translate the Spanish coach's verbose pep talk: the fed-up grunt snaps, "He said to give you the ball."

Scenes like those are among the unexpectedly affecting moments that bid to make Love and Basketball as much a grassroots hit as was Boyz N the Hood. It isn't difficult to see why people might respond to it; Prince-Bythewood really does approximate something genuine?apart from producer Spike Lee's insistence on the commerciality of b-ball (despite the fact that He Got Game deservedly tanked). Like the romantic movies people think of as great, this one (following Boyz N the Hood) is true to a community yearning that's rarely expressed in movie culture. It could succeed where worthy contenders like The Wood, Alma's Rainbow and The Players' Club did not, by restoring the public's illusion that Hollywood (and its love story formula) welcomes their simplest dreams.

Gossip Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Joel Schumacher ruins even his good intentions. He's only the executive producer on Gossip but it carries the whiff of his cheap cologne. As in last fall's Flawless and every "serious" Schumacher production, he destroys a potentially interesting, socially relevant concept by going for the glam effect. Trying to prove his Vanity Fair subscription keeps him abreast of hot topics, it's as if he still can't help being trite.

This time director Davis Guggenheim cuts the cloth according to Schumacher's pattern: Gossip is Melrose noir. Guggenheim watches three college kids (James Marsden, Lena Headey and Norman Reedus) prone to exaggeration. First it's to cadge free drinks at a club by pretending one is the son of a rock star, then to bedevil their classmates (Joshua Jackson, Kate Hudson) through character assassination. Guggenheim treats their idle mischief as youthful rebellion against the principles taught in a high-concept seminar but it comes across mainly as a form of superiority?in movies only the thin, pretty and fashion-conscious can afford to be this smug. It might as well be called St. Elmo's Flatliners.

Schumacher and Guggenheim's story (written by Gregory Poirier and Theresa Rebeck) pointedly references O.J. Simpson mania (now outdone by the media's Elianation so Gossip is, already, out of date). Yet the filmmakers are so mired in chic, shallow postures that they wouldn't know truth or realism if it bit them in their aspirations. Gossip's moral complications are soon dropped for an easily dramatized position against a date-rapist. This noncontroversy won't trouble any viewers' widdle heads. (Why not follow the O.J. scenario to its conclusion by confronting race perception? MTV did it seven years ago when The Real World-Los Angeles blithely accused the innocent black male roomie of rape?and self-righteously punished him for it.) But Gossip isn't even as challenging as real gossip; the filmmakers only pretend to address media-corrupted public opinion that, in essence, would be to scrutinize people's current inability to think for themselves, to oppose simple manipulation (even if the medium is simply loose, but pretty, lips).

This sub-Kevin Williamson world of pouting and flossing is as corrupt as Fox Cable News. No one takes anything more seriously than the actors in tv commercials. The settings?both classrooms and insanely lavish lofts for college kids?are stylized beyond moral recognition. Schumacher's look (practically a trademarked widescreen mural-like art direction) is inherently unserious, designed to detach viewers from rethinking their own lives and dilemmas. It's part of the way movies are now marketed to teens. Who would have thought Melrose Place (or perhaps Beverly Hills 90210) would be Hollywood's primary cultural influence?

Sad to say, Gossip isn't even as disturbing as The Real World-Hawaii where a situation of roommate hostility (Justin plotting to destroy Colin and Amaya's relationship) was used soullessly by MTV. The network actually condoned gossip just for a drama of conflict?deliberately watching evil perpetrated upon unsuspecting people just for ratings. Even MTV's fatuousness got closer to the crisis of incivility than Schumacher and Guggenheim's contrivance.

And what kind of movie did Eric Bogosian think he was taking part in? He plays a journalism professor who conducts his vastly populated lecture course the way Jenny Jones runs a talk show (apparently the final exam is on ambush journalism). Obviously Bogosian's brand of showbizzy provocation isn't far from Schumacher's favorite oxymoron?hard-hitting entertainment. Gossip trivializes media's current ethical crisis through hysterical, nighttime soap fabrications. But it's still the basic Schumacher formula: a lie fashioned in pretense based on artifice.

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