There are a lot of movies out there about high school. Dead Poets’ Society. Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Election. Clueless.
Some I like, some I don’t. In some, I see situations and students that look familiar; in most, what’s on the screen looks nothing like what I see in the classrooms and hallways in which I spend my days.
Still, I could watch Clueless on an endless repeat loop, even though the teachers in it are nothing like me. And while there are some endearingly familiar scenes that remind me of the students I teach and of the universality of teenagerhood, the movie’s success doesn’t, for me, lie in its fidelity to reality.
I hated Dead Poets’ Society and Election. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either, so I can’t speak about them with any specificity, but I remember being stymied by the critical acclaim for Election (maybe I need to watch it again?) and I found Dead Poets’ Society so cloyingly and emotionally manipulative that it just annoyed me.
My younger self wouldn’t miss an episode Welcome Back, Kotter; I couldn’t get through an episode of Saved By the Bell.
In dozens of discussions about these and other school-based movies and television shows over the years, no one has ever suggested that I like them to show support for my profession, or despaired because they present teaching and high school students in a negative light (though there’s certainly a case to make for the latter).
Racing, it appears, is different.
Watching Luck on Sunday, I and others tweeted our impressions. A tour de force of style over substance, Luck is a sensual feast: music by turns languorous and intense; the beauty of Santa Anita; crisp, evocatively lit camerawork. My senses were enthralled.
My brain and my heart, not so much. The “corruption at the racetrack” meme was in full force, at the betting windows and on the backstretch; the social misfit bettors were front and center. A horse died on the racetrack. Give them credit: it took a full 47 minutes for that to happen.
Mostly, I was bored. Not because I spend a lot of time at the track, not because I thought the series was unrealistic, not because I was watching with “inside baseball” eyes. I was just bored. I wasn’t interested by the characters or the plot, and I didn’t see a lot that would make me tune in when the series launches at the end of January.
But the longest Twitter conversations focused not on who liked the show and why, but on the effect it might have on the sport. Hope sprang that Luck would bring people to the track and have a positive effect on the industry—lofty burdens, I think, for a simple television show.
Why, I wonder, do grasp so gratefully at any depictions in mainstream media of the sport we love? Why do we seize on each new production – the Secretariat movie, the ESPN program on Charismatic, Luck – as the next great hope that will expose to the world what a wonderful game we have?
And why are we always surprised and disappointed when the drama is found in the less savory elements of the sport–the suggestions of horses being drugged, of trainer chicanery, of bettors down to their last buck and pinning it on a big score? Last year, Jaimy Gordon took heat for her depictions of life at a small-town track in Lord of Misrule; Sunday night, no small number of people were upset at the breakdown scene in Luck.
Does this happen in other industries? Does law enforcement hope that Law and Order, CSI, and Without A Trace will depict their professions positively? Do doctors want ER and Grey’s Anatomy to make patients feel better about getting medical care?
I don’t understand the desire to put the burden of publicizing racing on television producers, on networks, and on authors. It’s not their job; if it were, they’d be in PR instead of the creative arts.
Just as we decry the reliance on slots money to fund our purses, we should decry the reliance on others to fill the seats. As we’ve seen after each Big Media Event, the attendance and handle needles don’t move very much. I don’t expect that luck to change.