' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...June 17th, 1994

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Some Drivel On...June 17th, 1994

June 17th, 1994 began with a ticker tape parade for the Stanley Cup-winning New York Rangers hockey team in Manhattan and golf trailblazer Arnold Palmer teeing off for his final round in a U.S. Open at the Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania and the day concluded with Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks being preempted on TV to instead show celebrity and ex-NFL star Orenthal James Simpson, wanted for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, being chased down a Los Angeles freeway in a white Ford Bronco in what became tantamount to a twisted Hollywood version of a New Orleans Funeral. In other words, historic celebrations of athletes gave way to the infamous fall of one. In his astonishing 2010 documentary chronicling that bizarrely jam-packed day, director Brett Morgen eschewed narration and traditional talking heads to instead cultivate it almost exclusively from TV footage, creating the effect of a story told through channel-flipping fragments and sensations. After all, O.J. Simpson, as James Poniewozik essentially reckoned for The New York Times in the wake of the former’s death last week at 76, was as much media personality as man. The World Cup might have kicked off in America, too, on June 17th, 1994, but the hunt for a fugitive Simpson and the subsequent freeway chase managed to supersede the planet’s biggest event, at least for a day, with a vintage American-style spectacle.

For a comprehensive personal, political, social, and cultural examination of Simpson, “June 17th, 1994” is not it. That’s Ezra Edelman’s sensational five-part “O.J.: Made in America” (2016), and if you don’t have time to watch all eight hours then reading Ray Ratto’s evaluation of O.J. for Defector with Joel Anderson’s assessment at Slate as the necessary chaser will do. But that isn’t to say Morgen’s movie is uninterested in or unaware of these ideas. Far from it, he just manifests them in different ways. As an earlier sequence in which “June 17th, 1994” cuts from the elder Arnold Palmer hitting a tee shot at Oakmont to monochrome archival footage of the younger Palmer rocketing a golf ball down the fairway, Morgen tends to see history in eerie echoes and rhymes. During the freeway chase, a cut to archival footage of Simpson in an old Hertz commercial dashing through the airport echoes becomes a macabre joke, holding up these two sides of Simpson at once and then splitting them right down the middle with a figurative axe. Images of people cheering the Ford Bronco alongside the freeway and from overpasses reverberate with footage of the erstwhile football star being cheered on at L.A. Coliseum during a touchdown run in 1969 in USC’s Game of the Century versus UCLA, portending the Trial of the Century. Perhaps Morgen’s most cutting supplement is adding the recordings of an LAPD detective trying to talk down a possibly suicidal Simpson in the back of that Ford Bronco, underlining the grisly nature of the whole ostensible carnival, a man wanted for murder threatening to kill himself to the primetime entertainment of millions, reality and a distorted, disturbing funhouse reflection of reality blending until you can’t tell them apart.

By never zooming out, “June 17th, 1994” takes a Where Were You? moment and puts us right back in the middle of it, but with accumulated knowledge over time to put into perspective what it always was, a twilight drive through this country’s own splintered, media-addled psyche.

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