Matt Damon Finds His Inner Negro in The Legend of Bagger Vance

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The Legend of Bagger Vance directed by Robert Redford

I haven't read the Steven Pressfield bestseller that was the source of Redford's film, and at this point you'd have to pay me a fair amount of money to do so. One assumes the movie is far less grating than the book for the simple reason that it is a movie: We get to look at stars, ogle beautiful clothes and landscapes, and return visually to a less hectic time. With a book, it would be a lot harder to allow the mind to drift away from the, um, story.

I use the term loosely. Story, or the lack of it, is the thing that separates Bagger Vance from Hollywood's last attempt to extract holiday-season millions from a gauzy tale of mystical redemption set in the Depression-era South. Based on the writings of Stephen King, who is to the narrative fiction trade what geysers are to the oil industry, The Green Mile was wall-to-wall story, three-plus hours of story packed tight enough to give Tolstoy constipation. In fact, that was what I liked about Frank Darabont's otherwise rather sappy movie: it seemed to share King's gleeful delight in his storytelling fecundity, a prolixity that makes Bagger Vance?and most current Hollywood movies?seem drip-fed by comparison.

Certainly, Redford and company think they have a story, because Pressfield's book gives them a premise that looks like the launching pad to something big. After the opening flourish of a Pvt. Ryan-like framing device (another old white guy falling to his knees: this time it's a duffer's fifth heart attack, not James-Jones-does-Proust), the movie rockets back to the Great Depression and Savannah, GA, where the obligatory boy narrator, Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief), recalls the troubled career arc of his great golf hero, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon).

Forget that his name suggests an author who thinks Southerners have an inborn difficulty with hard consonants?Junuh has his own woes. Circa 1916, he's the golden-boy champeen of the links, with a lusty attachment to the fair Adele (Charlize Theron), whose daddy owns half of creation. But then comes World War I. Junuh ships off to the European trenches, sees his entire company get turned into vulture niblets and comes back one of Hemingway's damaged men. Here the film makes a huge and momentarily baffling jump, from circa 1918 to 1930. The Roaring 20s have roared by without blowing a kiss; Savannah, by all appearances, never got to Charleston.

The reason for the leap: Depression-era hardship is a plot point. Adele's daddy has blown his disappointed brains out after opening the world's greatest golf resort at just the wrong historic moment. She wants to save the place with a splashy exhibition match that pits greats Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen against a long-unseen local hero. But can Junuh be rescued from drinking and playing cards with the field hands, as Those Who Can't Forget are wont to do?

Actually, he emerges from his despond as if he's ready. The big problem is internal, a form of damage that manifests as the wrong kind of golf handicap: he's lost his swing. Just can't find the grip, the stance, the winning arc. Which can only mean one thing: he needs to get in touch with his inner Negro.

That would be Will Smith, wouldn't it? America's least threatening brother strolls in from the low-country mist grinning and nodding his broad-brimmed hat, oblivious to the fact that in any less clueless movie he would be playing Tiger Woods and Matt Damon would be his caddy. Smith's Bagger Vance is an all-purpose mystical guide from the great beyond, devoid of anything as specific as an accent or a past. Reports have it that the movie excised overt supernatural powers that the book allowed him, but that only leaves him all the more vaporous; neutered in every way beyond the vaguely therapeutic. Yet his value to massa is undeniable: in recovering his swing, Junuh obviously hopes to get his schwing back too. Adele indeed has a lot riding on her big exhibition match.

As I say, it's a premise. It takes too long to set up, and after that...don't forget to set the snooze alarm. As a spectator sport, golf may be notoriously boring to nonenthusiasts, but the makers of Bagger Vance act like that's its biggest advantage. Rather than segmenting the competition into several briskly dramatized matches, they stretch one game to well over an hour, which in screen time feels well-nigh interminable. And to make sure things don't get too interesting, they deprive the competition of any gut-level personal rivalry. Junuh, Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Hagen (Bruce McGill) are gentlemanly co-equals; none would spoil the collegial mood by actually disliking one of his Gatsbyesque fellows.

Bagger Vance is set in the South, yet its sensibility screams California?and argues that Hollywood filmmakers should stow their Joseph Campbell for a while. Even by the standards of misty-eyed sports fables, Redford's film lacks the kind of human and social traction that mystical yarns, especially, need for lift-off. It's a gesture toward a story rather than a story, a tribute to blond-guy soulfulness that can't help but feel a little self-regarding.

Still, it left me thinking about its iconography, which may well be the movie's real drawing card. Sure, its way of making Depression-era poverty seem clean and wholesome, and of ridding the South of any hint of racial friction, makes Norman Rockwell look like a hard-hitting social realist by comparison. Yet once we reach the big game, this headlong retreat from the present evinces a more specific and positive goal than mere escapism. Here, Gatsby opens his shirt to reveal the heart of Alfred Lord Tennyson. The players become chevaliers jousting with lances of hickory, the lilt of ancestral Scottish voices is heard on the breeze, and the emerald fairway seems to stretch straight down to Avalon.

No, I'm not saying that the movie has now left planet Earth behind. I'm saying it has gained a foothold in a very real cultural myth that is perhaps strongest of all in the South, and that becomes more anomalous and more subliminally appealing as our culture watches the belief structures of amour courtois fall before the corrosive imperatives of technological materialism.

"Ritual and romance" I think the phrase is, and in giving us a fleeting glimpse of what it indicates, Bagger Vance makes the point that movies, here in the moment before digital projection wreaks a crucial change on the medium, are more than ever serving as an oasis from the overwash of trivializing toxicity that most pop culture has become. The story Redford's film tells thus may not be more than a weak combination of new-agey wishfulness and locker-room sentimentality, but the world it glancingly evokes?a world of belief and tradition, beyond place and ideology?still connects to powerful, immaterial realities that bear thoughtful reflection.


Also on the subject of (some) movies as a refuge from current pop culture's general toxicity: I was thoroughly engaged and ultimately touched by my esteemed colleague's recent rhapsody over David Gordon Green's George Washington. Yet I also fear the work in question presents us with an instance of "eye of the beholder" if not "the emperor's new clothes": Not only was the review far more accomplished and lucid than the film it lauded, it also unfortunately suggested the danger to film culture (and the disgruntlement of prospective viewers) of a critic so assiduously describing the movie he wished to see, while failing to acknowledge much of what's on the screen.

When I saw George Washington I, too, was struck by something unusual: a 35-mm feature that evidently went before the cameras with an barely coherent script. You don't see that every day. Nor do you often see a movie with so many imbalances in the performances (in this case, the mostly black juveniles are generally far better than the grownups). As a final product, the film suggests a shambling patchwork that was given its semblance of "poetic" logic by some feverish cobbling in the editing room, with plenty of help from that dependable caulk for wormholed narratives, voiceover narration.

Granted, the pie-eyed idiosyncrasy of that narration suggests a certain naive originality (albeit of a sort that won't be entirely novel to Southerners up on their regional fiction), and Green has an unmistakable flair for 'Scope compositions and grungy backdrops. Yet the movie's level of craft and vision is still that of a student film, and to me it's only a mark of our current cinematic decline that such modest, inconsistent virtues as it offers could get it admitted to the New York Film Festival and cause some critics literally to go gaga. The Times called it a "a fairy tale by Faulkner," a phrase that makes about as much sense as "special-effects extravaganza by Frederick Wiseman."

To me, the obvious key to George Washington's appeal is that it inadvertently manufactures a kind of downhome art-film utopia in which contemporary kids?mostly black, while the writer-director is white?remain entirely untouched by the toxicity mentioned above. There's no godawful rap music in the film, no tv, no video, no neon, no malls, no profanity: not much of anything cultural, in fact, that suggests the year 2000 in the USA.

But that's not to say, as some have, that the film eschews pop culture entirely. In fact, it features recurrent motifs?a Davy Crockett-style cap, a superhero outfit, etc.?that have one thing in common: they belong to the suburban pop world of 40-50 years ago, when it seemed that such playful icons might stimulate the collective imagination rather than point the way toward its poisoning. That older, happier possibility obviously remains a potent dream, no matter how disproved by contemporary reality.

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