' ' Cinema Romantico: Cool Runnings Was Good, Even If It May Not Have Been A Cult Classic

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cool Runnings Was Good, Even If It May Not Have Been A Cult Classic

I have written a version of this before but it bears repeating…..though the above sequence may be corny, my quixotic heart can’t help but envision it as a perfect image of the Olympic spirit, stronger than any flame in any cauldron, mightier than any laminated motto. John Candy in a Rastafarian hat – Americans and Jamaicans co-mingling and, eventually, later on, East Germans leading slow claps. 

Slate, the venerable Internet magazine which has never encountered a story about which it could not find cause to bitch, recently took umbrage with Jon Turtletaub’s mostly made-up re-telling of the story of the Jamaican Bobsled Team, going right after it in a typical PAY ATTENTION TO US!!! Headline that went “‘Cool Runnings’ Was Not Good, And It Was Definitely Not A ‘Cult Classic’”. We’ll tackle those claims in reverse order. I’m not sure I was aware of “Cool Runnings” status in pop culture as a cult classic, but then as Justin Peters notes – paraphrasing Matthew Power – it isn’t a cult classic so much as a “’pop culture punchline’ – a movie that’s continually referenced not because it’s good but because it is a strange cultural artifact that a lot of 30-somethings remember.”

I am one of these 30-somethings to whom Peters alludes. My first Olympics were the Winter Games of Calgary in 1988 which doubled as the Jamaican Bobsled Team’s introduction to the culture, and as a 10 year old I naturally became their fan. I gave a high school speech about the Jamaican Bobsled Team, gleaned, as this was pre-Internet Boom, from my back issues of Sports Illustrated and Encyclopedias. (My teacher gave me a C, as I recall, and a note that went something like, “Very sparse in detail.”) I saw “Cool Runnings” the night it opened at the Westwood 6 in West Des Moines, Iowa. Why just this past NYE when I noticed legions of people were using Twitter as a platform for celebratory poetry, I got in on the act and Tweeted out the “Cool Runnings” Chant. (My friend Cindy did not get the reference. Apparently she is not part of the “cult”.) Of course, discussing it this way only offers ammunition to Peters’ argument – I fondly remember this strange cultural artifact and I am referencing it rather than really arguing for it as a quality piece of filmmaking.

In August 2012, in an effort to assuage my traditional Post-Olympics Depression, I re-watched “Cool Runnings” for the first time in a long time. As I noted in my review: “Re-visiting it nearly 20 years later as a wannabe cineaste, I figured I knew what would happen. I would be gravely disappointed in its rampant factual inaccuracies and in its pedantic sports movie clichés.” And those are present, without question, and I listed several, like the intrepid Jamaicans training with some sort of shabby contraption in possession of a steering wheel, which is absurd because bobsleds don’t have steering wheels. Also, why all the hubbub to get two extra members onto the team alongside Durice (Leon) and the lyrically named Sanka Coffie (Doug E. Doug) when there is, you know, a two man bobsled event? PLOT HOLES! PLOT HOLES! PLOT HOLES!

To be fair, Peters is not simply excavating plot holes in his takedown but questioning both its comedic and communal chops. For instance, as he notes, much of the humor, particularly in the early-going, centers around – him quoting The Washington Post’s Desson Howe – “cartoonish natives.” Bobsled, see, is a cold-weather event and they are from a warm-weather island, see, and so it’s funny when they go to Calgary because it’s SO cold. (Never mind that the Calgary Games, like Sochi, were notoriously warm-weathered. PLOT HOLE! PLOT HOLE! PLOT HOLE!)

Peters references Roger Ebert’s First Law Of Funny Names in regards to not only Sanka Coffie but bald and fearsome Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba). But perhaps Peters would have done well to re-visit the late great Ebert’s original “Cool Runnings” review. It is not a rave, per se, rightly referencing the film’s obvious structure and noting that “If a bunch of guys can get (to the Olympics) by practicing in a bobsled with wheels, nothing is sacred.” Truth. Ah, but Ebert, like only the best film critics, had the willingness to admit that a film’s temperament can succeed even if its framework may be lacking. “It’s not a bad movie,” he says. “In fact, it’s surprisingly entertaining, with a nice sweetness in place of the manic determination of the average sports picture.” But it is David Anthony of The AV Club, reconsidering the film last November, who really gets it right, pointing out how “Most Disney sports stories drive home the importance of victory above all else”, how “Achievement…cannot be measured in growth or personal success” and how “’Cool Runnings’ subverts this lesson.” Indeed, it is less about competitive triumph than mere competition, “glory of sport” as the Olympic oath puts it.

I admit part of my Olympic-fascination (obsession) stems from my nostalgia-problem. Every four years two years, I inevitably flash back to Fourth Grade Me in February 1988, suddenly, miraculously swept up in this all-consuming fortnight of transcendent athletic feats, captivated not just by Jamaicans but by East Germans and Soviets and an American who skied and then shot a gun (what?) and a Finn who literally flew. Peters terms “Cool Runnings” a film for kids, writing “I liked it a lot when I was 12. I also liked it because I was 12, and not yet old enough to realize how hacky ‘Cool Runnings’ was.” Is “Cool Runnings” hacky? Sure. After all, one scene finds our intrepid islanders involved in a country & western saloon-stylized brawl with the requisite villains. You can only roll your eyes. But in the bar brawl’s preamble, Sanka Coffie and a nameless woman very nearly non-verbally become pals on the dance floor, an embodiment of mythical Olympic ideals, not distant strangers but unified line-dancers.

“Cool Runnings” does not so much make me feel like I’m 10 again as remind me what it felt like to be 10 – when I believed wholly in the “glory of sport”. Frankly, I still do, even if I now know “glory of sport” is less tangible than ineffable, and the Olympics are “an imperfect interregnum,” as Jill Lepore wrote for The New Yorker last week, “the parade of nations a fantasy about a peace never won.” And that’s ultimately what makes “Cool Runnings” so wonderful, because in spite of its hackneyed imperfections it still gets that fantasy perfectly right, dreaming it up in a line dance and in the whimsical tendering of a Rastafarian hat.


Andrew K. said...

Nothing is greater than seeing people write with passion.

Also, that last paragraph especially its opening line sums up a major thing about allowing yourself to be lured into a film, or any art work, logic and realism be damned. When it moves you, it just does.

(This is the part in the movie where we head into a rendition of "Can't Fight This Feeling".)

Nick Prigge said...

I certainly would like to imagine parts of my life as a "Can't Fight This Feeling" montage. Who wouldn't?!

And thanks for the kind words.