' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Long Gone (1987)

Friday, April 14, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: Long Gone (1987)

The 1987 HBO movie “Long Gone,” never released to DVD and currently only available via roughhewn upload to YouTube, is about a fictional 1950s minor league baseball team in Florida and bears undeniable resemblance to Ron Shelton’s “Bull Durham.” But then, not only was “Bull Durham” released into theaters in 1988, one year after “Long Gone” debuted on HBO, the latter was based on a 1979 novel by Paul Hemphill. Steve Persall recounted the backstory in 2015 for the Tampa Bay Times, interviewing “Long Gone” co-star Virginia Madsen who claimed none other than Shelton himself attended the premiere of her own baseball movie and “sat there during the film taking notes.” Persall contacted Shelton who denied Madsen’s story. I don’t necessarily believe Shelton just as I don’t necessarily believe Madsen. The truth, I’m sure, since it almost always does, lies somewhere in the middle. Still, it’s hard not to notice the similarities between Madsen’s Dixie Lee Boxx and Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy. But Dixie Lee begins the film with a National Anthem that goes awry, a scene not only suggesting the sort of fatigue I have always suspected baseball players might have for a song they have to hear over and over their whole lives but evoking Frank Drebin’s misbegotten National Anthem in “The Naked Gun,” also released in 1988. Maybe all sorts of movies have cosmic echoes. 

Why the film’s protagonist Cecil “Stud” Cantrell (William Petersen) even recurringly refers to Cantrell’s Law a la Coughlin’s Law in yet another 1988 movie, “Cocktail.” Stud is manager and star player of the Class D Tampico Stogies, his chance at The Show (i.e. the Major Leagues) long since gone, defeated in his bid to make the St. Louis Cardinals as left fielder by one Stan Musial. “He had a prettier swing than me,” Stud says, “but I hit the ball harder.” Petersen takes that line to heart, giving the role a ton of juice, sort of playing the Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh of “Bull Durham” at once, as weary as he is wild, and his character determined to field a winning team despite the incompetents in charge, a father and son (Henry Gibson and Teller, respectively) who put into comical perspective how sports ownership rarely conforms to meritocracy.

If many baseball movies employ linear plots building toward climactic games, for a good long while “Long Gone” is content to move sideways as much as forwards, reveling in its people and its place, touching on both religion and race in ways that feel neither simpleminded nor sentimental. The location work at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Florida makes for an appropriately lived-in feel, evoking how the team exists on the edge of the larger baseball world, while the pink Florida twilight under which it plays still imbues that romantic feeling of loving what you do. Indeed, the bluesy harmonica of Phillip Namanworth and Kenny Vance’s score mirrors this idea, adding a twinge of melancholy that never becomes overbearing, a sense of camaraderie and love of what they do even as off the field issues and responsibilities encroach the diamond, evoking how “Long Gone” is as much about living life as playing baseball.

Of course, life and baseball eventually have to collide in the form of that aforementioned big game, and it happens when Tampico’s St. Louis Cardinals-affiliated rival offers Stud their managerial job, possibly meaning another shot at The Show, so long as he throws Tampico’s looming showdown with the affiliate. It’s not the showdown itself as it is the scene before that lingers, one in which Stud and the team’s slugger Joe Louis Brown (Larry Riley), sticking it out despite the hostile intentions of The Deep South, commiserate in a bar while listening to the game on the radio before ultimately deciding to go join their team despite everything else. The way this sequence is lit, light falling on them through the windows, suggests the bar as a kind of confessional, and Stud’s speech is him confessing that baseball is anything but, as they say, just a game only to then go and live, for a few innings at least, like it is. 

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