Miami 2011: “Mooney vs. Fowle”
March 10, 2011 18 Comments
I don’t know that I’ve ever attended a screening where the crowd is so into the documentary on screen (well, maybe the Bieber doc). James Lipscomb’s 1962 “Living Camera” episode “Mooney vs. Fowle” played to a crowd mostly made up of people who are in the Drew Associates’ vérité classic, and they understandably treated the film as if it were a slideshow projected at their high school reunion. People all around me talked amongst themselves, pointing out themselves or friends. At first it irritated me that I couldn’t always hear the dialogue from the actual film, but after a while I had an appreciation for what this experience was for everyone there. Most had apparently never seen it.
The doc brings us back to a 1961 football game played in front of 40,000 people at the Orange Bowl. A high school football game, pitting Miami High against their rivals from Edison High. The title refers to the coaches of each, and the film follows them separately, with their real families and their clan of players, in the days leading up to the big event. And then at last it astonishingly chronicles the game from all kinds of angles you wouldn’t expect from even the newly mobile tools of the Drew crew. Today’s television coverage doesn’t come nearly as close to capturing the spirit of the sport and its fans the way Lipscomb does here.
As the game played out on screen, abridged of course, the energetic audience around me would cheer or boo certain plays as if they were watching it live. Has a 50-year-old event ever been met with such passion? And does it help that kids back then were so peppy for school-related activities? During the closing credits an instrumental version of what I guess is the Miami High’s song is played, and the row behind me sang along proudly. I became vicariously “nostalgic” for a kind of high school experience my generation never had, at least not where I come from.
Even without the Rolling Roadshow-like circumstances of seeing “Mooney vs. Fowle” in Miami (the first time it’s been screened there), the doc is a gem. And I tend to be bored with football films, particularly when they’re focused on real-life artifacts (though I enjoyed much of Kevin Rafferty’s “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29”). Though it documents the actual game on the field quite centrally, there is also plenty of footage of the crowd, the sidelines, the cheerleaders and the marching band to keep it broadly, atmospherically engaging.
Before the event we get a peek at general school and teen life of the time, when apparently boys and men alike had no hair (the former all with buzzcuts; the latter balding) and girls and women contrastingly had huge, curled clumps of the stuff. Everyone seems so uniform and pure (the surprising absence of profanity was addressed in the Q&A, with coaches and players admitting to conscious self-censorship around the cameras). At one point during the film, though, I overheard a comment and snicker from some older gentlemen cracking about the cheerleaders, implying that either we were only getting a surface look at seemed innocence or those guys simply hadn’t matured much in five decades.
My favorite moment, however, is from the game: the clock has only 19 seconds on it, but Lipscomb decides not to show the countdown or what’s occurring on the field during that time. Instead he stays on a tight shot of the winning team’s coach up until and through the instance that his players lift him up in celebration. I don’t even think you hear the final whistle, but the cheers from the crowd are probably audible. Regardless of what’s heard on the soundtrack, the visual says everything you need to know at that moment, not just for the game but for the whole story. And it’s the kind of thing only great on-hand, direct cinema-style documentarians tend to achieve.
This screening was an amazing way to kick off my time at the Miami International Film Festival. I could have seen the film under other circumstances — I believe it will be playing in NYC soon, in fact — and I do hope this and other unavailable Drew Associates works get a video release soon. But it’s pretty neat to have had the opportunity to see the film with its many subjects, not just the 80-something Coach Mooney, as were the quarterbacks from each team, but all the reunited Miami and Edison high schoolers who made it out to the event. You have to appreciate the locally significant films that show at regional film fests, especially when they’re as wonderful as “Mooney vs. Fowle.”