' ' Cinema Romantico: June 17, 1994

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

June 17, 1994

I can't say what God was thinking when he awoke twenty years ago and flipped his joke-a-day calendar ("Jesus and Moses are playing golf...") to June 17, 1994, but clearly something athletically cosmic was in the air. It was a day brimming with monumental sports stories. Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer played his last round at the U.S. Open. The United States-hosted World Cup kicked off in Chicago. The New York Rangers Stanley Cup victory parade wound through the streets of Manhattan while the New York Knicks tipped off against the Houston Rockets in pivotal Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Madison Square Garden. These events and their accompanying story lines were etched in stone, the headlines for June 18th dependent on but a few results. Then NFL Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson, wanted for the murders of his wife, Nicole Simpson, and Ronald Goldman, fled from justice in a white Ford Bronco on prime time TV and the whole damn script got torn up.

“June 17, 1994”, the absolute class of ESPN’s ongoing 30 for 30 documentary series, is the antithesis of modern sports journalism which shapes events to fit the pre-packaged storyline, not unlike an old commercial glimpsed in the film which finds Arnold Palmer and O.J. playing pals and all-around All-Americans. It's an ad that hardly hawks its product (which I forget) and instead informs its audience's expectations of these two men. Sports, however, are about philosophical perception, which might give Stat Wonks an aneurism except that, well, Stat Wonks perceive sports as empirical and fanatics (like me) perceive sports as observational. As Colin McGowan wrote a couple weeks back for Sports on Earth: “(Sports’) ultimate pointlessness frees us to make anything out of them we want.”

That sensation is one director Brett Morgen marvelously illustrates by simply letting the innumerable images beamed to televisions twenty years ago speak for themselves, cross-cutting between the day’s events to render the viewer a channel-surfing voyeur. There is no narration and no after-the-fact interviews. The only outside intrusions are brief screen captions – mostly weighted toward the beginning – to provide our necessary bearings. This is not to suggest that Morgen has merely constructed some random collage - far from it, in fact, as he routinely pairs similar moments from one event with another. And by providing no commentary when he does this, we are left to wonder for ourselves: is this arbitrary coincidence or the pull of fate?

As the film and, by extension, the day continue, the further and further the narrative gets away from those who would fancy themselves its creator. No doubt ESPN, broadcasting the US Open, wants to send Arnold Palmer off in grand style, and instead it is forced to endure a depressing meltdown of missed shots, over and over, one of the game’s greatest reduced to a pleading amateur. “Get in there, you rascal,” a commentator says to Arnie’s golf ball as it rolls past the hole and off the green and into the rough. Listen, ball! This isn’t the way it’s supposed to happen! Ah, but what does a Titlist care about a production truck back in Bristol? So too is the re-shaping of a storyline found in behind-the-scenes footage of NBC anchor Bob Costas as his network must delicately balance covering Game 5 and the ongoing O.J. Simpson situation, real life intruding on our games, unless - as the film subtly hints - there is not difference. Costas’ face in these sequences is pure anguish, and they unwittingly foreshadow an age (now) when essentially everything would be captured by the camera.

Even O.J.’s chase shape-shifts, not simply from the media’s reaction to the escalating crisis - its resignation as it is forced to conclude the O.J. they had been pitching for decades might be a lie, crystallized in an Al Michaels interview - but in the 911 tapes Morgan serves on the soundtrack as we listen to Simpson talking to the negotiator, refusing to toss the gun he’s carrying, clearly conveying suicidal thoughts. It’s as if this drive down the freeway is also a drive to his resting place. Except, of course, post-chase it would be revealed passports and disguises were in the car, a clear signal that he intended to flee, an impugnation of guilt. In other words, he was spinning his story in the midst of his story.

Each time I’ve watched the film, I settle on a single moment as being most profound. It’s a snippet of the Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. rocketing a baseball out of Kansas City’s stadium and into its picturesque outfield fountains, which in and of itself might not be such a big deal except that it ties Griffey Jr. with one Babe Ruth for most home runs prior to June 30th. (What a day, eh?) Of course, little does the film, set almost entirely within the present, know what’s coming in but a couple months – that is, Major League Baseball will go on strike and Griffey Jr.’s assault on Roger Maris’s mythical home run record will have a forced premature end and so McGwire & Sosa will have to do it a few years later and so the Steroid Era will commence and on and on and on goes the story, changing, re-forming, etc. But……does that knowledge possessed by the viewer alter this home run? Does O.J. Simpson running from the law simultaneously on a different channel alter this home run? Does O.J. Simpson running from the law alter his majestic 64 yard touchdown run against UCLA 27 years earlier (shown in flashback)? Is a feat a feat in any language?

That, to quote Mark Strong in “Zero Dark Thirty”, is a fascinating question, and one that “June 17, 1994” purposely leaves each viewer to debate with him or herself. Twenty years on, I still don't think I have an answer.


Alex Withrow said...

With the exception of Benji pulling ahead by a very slight margin, June 17, 1994 is my favorite 30 for 30 film.

"...cross-cutting between the day’s events to render the viewer a channel-surfing voyeur." That's EXACTLY what this film feels like. As if we sat on the couch all day on June 17 '94 and kept trying to keep up with all the events. This film is such a narrative gamble, I've never seen anything like it. Incredible.

Nick Prigge said...

It IS incredible! I just watched it again for the first time in awhile in preparation for this post and it still blows me away.