In 1985, a film called Vision Quest (based on the novel of the same name) performed a double leg takedown on coming of age sports movies. It got into my head when I first saw it and it never left. The movie still holds up 25+ years later, its realism and understatement in stark relief to today's imperative for exaggerated stakes and stylized action.
It's a minority view: it made a modest 13 million dollars in theaters, rates a 6 out of 10 on IMDB, and sits at a smooth 58% on Rotten Tomatoes. It's generally dismissed by critics as a harmless piece of 1980s formula. It isn't. The passage of time has only served to highlight the uniqueness of this film.
It's About Sports, But It's Not About Sports
The plot is straightforward: a high school wrestler named Louden Swain, raised by a single father after the family lost their farm, decides to cut two weight classes to take on the baddest wrestler in the state. His resolve is tested by Linda Fiorentino-induced priapism and a nitrogen imbalance caused by his starvation diet.
Great sports movies (and books) manage to simultaneously have nothing to do with sport and everything to do with sport. As in the central message of a wrestling movie expressed by a Victorian poet:
That Louden Swain, obsessive jock, is also contemplative and highly intelligent is the films first pivot away from convention.
While wrestling is only a vehicle for the hero's quest for self, that vehicle is respected: the wrestling is real, there is no cinematic flourish, and the depiction of the ancient sport reveals the accompanying age-old questions that mirror the human condition: am I good enough? Am I strong enough? Do I have the courage? Am I going to be humiliated in front of everyone? Why not take the easy road?
A champion grappler called Plato tried to make sense of the same eternal questions.
But he did it Greek and gay.
Here's one of my favorite scenes in the film, as Louden attempts to scout his undefeated rival, Shute:
That's a great slice of film making. He settles in, recorder in hand, Shute utterly obliterates the opponent; the cheering crowd obscures everything until the reveal: Louden's aghast WTF expression as he struggles to make sense of what he just saw. He never said a word into the recorder after his intro. The scene ends with his head buried in his hands to the opening chords of Lunatic Fringe.
Speaking of soundtracks...
Soundtrack Of Ruminative Pining
It's a sports movie. It's an 80s movie. We've got to talk soundtrack.
Vision Quest features the first cinematic glimpse of Madonna singing Crazy 4 U pre-faux English accent; Red Rider's haunting Lunatic Fringe; Journey's Only The Young which serves the purpose of all Journey songs and lightly buttered popcorn; and my favorite -Change by John Waite, a masterpiece of 80's pop motivational angst.
Let it wash over you, reader. Let it carry you to a simpler time.
By the way, you know that Change is a winning pop song when you hear the opening guitar licks and lyrics that begin with "People talking..."
"People talking" are the opening lyrics for 61% of the pop songs written between 1979-1986. People were always talking in the 1980s. Lots of word out on the street. Scuttlebutt abounded. Back then you could just pull up to any group of kids and ask, "You people talking?" Then they'd tell you about the goings on of your girlfriend. Then you could go and confront your girl and say, "People talking." And she'd own up to her betrayals immediately. You'd ride out of that one stoplight town in your T-bird, fueled only by dreams.
That's how it all worked before texting.
Describing a movie's basic archetypal arc as unoriginal is the most banal of criticisms. There are few truly original stories. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and The Bible weren't breaking all that much new ground in their day and no one has done much since. Focus on execution and originality of character. A good sports movie is like the Lombardi Power Sweep - you know what's coming, but if the script and acting work in concert, the chains are going to move. Vision Quest has originality because the characters are developed. And for what it doesn't try to do.
Refreshing Absence of Rape Woman/Kill Dog
Today's go-to audience manipulation device is what I like to call Rape Woman/Kill Dog. Or, if you prefer, the RoethlisVick method. It's my umbrella term for all cheap cinematic emotional manipulation meant to establish a character or group of people as bad with little skill or caloric expenditure and it's descriptive of the most likely vehicle for doing so.
Movies like to establish the villainy of the antagonist early on with two popular devices: the killing of the hero's golden retriever and some variety of sexual assault on the hero's love interest - actual or threatened: "After I'm done with him, it's just me and you." One possible manipulation of this convention would be to switch the two acts around, but to date this has only been explored in German cinema. Molesting the heroes pet is, if you think about it, serious psychological scoreboard.
Did it have to be a service dog? Have you no decency, sir?
Other favored forms of RWKD are elder abuse, taunting the disabled, slapping a woman extra hard both sides, having a Dick Cheney-like vibe, and littering. Littering is the most inflammatory.
The RWKD trend didn't start in the last decade, but the acceleration of its use has been marked in any film with Vin Deisel. What better way to set an audience against a rival than 20 seconds of screen time showing the villain advancing menacingly on a labradoodle/girlfriend followed by fade to black and the off-camera sound of a dog's barking ending abruptly or a bonnet ripping?
Vision Quest refreshingly ignores this convention. Primarily by not having a villain. Take Shute, the rival. View the story from his perspective:
He hears word (peeeeople talking!) that a very good wrestler two weight classes above his is dramatically cutting weight to take him on, this wrestler stalks him at his matches, calls him out while he's carrying a telephone pole up some football bleachers, and generally makes it known to everyone in their small town that his singular life focus is to destroy him. This Swain lunatic gets constant nose bleeds, hangs out with a fake Indian, and sprints everywhere in a cellophane jogging suit. Shute reacts by having a moderately tense face off with him in a hallway and then wrestles him fairly. He gets beaten. After the only loss of his high school career, he walks off the mat.
I submit that today's overwrought film making would have had things go down differently. Louden's unemployed Dad would have been fired by Shute's father, prompting him to drive off of a Spokane dam, Shute and three friends would beat up Louden in slow motion using karate-wrestling while wearing skeleton masks after the father's funeral, molest Linda Fiorentino, then run over Louden's Bernese Mountain Dog with a back hoe after putting cayenne pepper in his wrestling singlet. In the match itself, Shute would blind Louden with a gunpowder mix exhaled from his mouth like The Great Kabuki shortly after Shute's coach slashes Swain's Achilles tendon under a bathroom stall during his pre-match piss. When Louden pins Shute, Shute attempts a sneaky attack post-fight, halted only by Linda Fiorentino hitting him with a folding chair while saying," Take a seat."
Adults Are Not The Enemy
Refreshingly, every adult male in the movie has Louden's best interests at heart. Every. Single. One. His Dad, his cool English teacher mentor, his coach, the alcoholic hotel cook. To whatever degree that they do briefly act as obstacles to Louden's ambitions, if at all, it is expressed in genuine concern for his well-being or to serve as a caution that his quest for glory also affects those around him.
Please contrast this to the conventions of the last two decades: the bumbling idiot sitcom Dad, the hard-driving evil coach, the soulless corporatist parents trapped in the American consumerist lie, the serially abusive Dad, mother, coach, brother, oboist. All a necessary backdrop for pure-hearted teens fighting to escape the clutches of oppressive scheming adults. Just go watch American Beauty. You'll get the drift.
Speaking of adult themes...
There was a time when women were considered attractive without the aid of compounds from the periodic table of elements injected into their bodies and their eye make up wasn't applied with a sharpie. They did things like wander around the house in their panties and a button down shirt. None of them were remotely interested in joining a rock climbing gym.
This movie has a young Linda Fiorentino. With fantastic big hair.
If you've bought none of my other arguments, this movie demands your respect on that basis alone.
Six Minutes Of Glory
Louden isn't trying to save the park, stop a chemical spill, expose government corruption, or win prize money to pay for his mother's kidney transplant. He isn't wrestling a racist, a polluter, al Queda cells, or a Marxist pederast. He's pushing himself for glory. Good old fashioned, selfish glory. He tests his limits, grows a bit as a person, inspires others briefly, but few lessons are learned, the stakes are small and personal, and the world keeps on spinning round.