Sunday, June 20, 2010

June 17, 1994: Subtle Choices Are Choices Nonetheless

ESPN's presentation of Brett Morgen's documentary June 17, 1994--part of the sports network's 30 for 30 series--opens with the director addressing the audience, saying:

June 17, 1994 is not your typical documentary. There are no talking head interviews, there's no narration, there's simply my editor, myself, and a bunch of footage. Over the last ten years what I've been trying to do is create non-fiction films that are what I call experiential. They're movies that take place in the past but are presented in the present tense. The reason we chose June 17, 1994 is just about every emotion that one relates to sports took place on that day.

I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Morgen describe his directing style before the start of the film, but that person should be commended. Leaving aside the fact that this introductory remark may provide evidence that there is, in fact, at least one talking head interview included in the film, Morgen's opening explanation is a necessary one. It's the first documentary I've seen that eschews reflective interviews and, even if the audience would be able to follow the action without this documentary staple, it takes something of a mental shift to realize that what we're watching is not a meditation on that June date through the lens of sixteen years of reflection: we're watching the on-the-spot reactions of those who witnessed these events unfold in real time. Morgen's introduction might not be the most elegant way to prepare the audience for this change, but I'll take what I can get from ESPN.

The film follows a single day of events in the sports world. The New York Rangers victory parade down the streets of Manhattan. The opening day of the Chicago-hosted World Cup. Arnold Palmer playing his final round of golf at the US Open. Game 5 of the NBA finals, featuring the Knicks and Rockets. A full slate of baseball games. And, of course, OJ's car chase.

The most interesting part of the film is some really great behind-the-scenes footage of Bob Costas, hosting NBC's coverage of the NBA finals. Costas, in these clips, discusses with his production staff how to handle the uncomfortable need to broadcast what was considered a rather important basketball game during what became one of the biggest news stories of the century. The viewer sees Costas desperately trying to determine how best to introduce the game even while OJ sits in the back of a speeding car with a gun to his head. This, in a nutshell, is the major theme of the movie: it's an exploration of how context and juxtaposition create meaning and how people respond to these juxtapositions. While Costas puts on a professional and appropriate face, Morgen throws everything together, forcing the viewer to assimilate six events at once. Trust me when I tell you that each event informs the others, as everything always does. What's fascinating here is that no one--except maybe those working the nation's newsrooms--could possibly have followed the day's events with a level of attention matched by Morgen's mashed-up day. June 17, 1994 as experienced by an average American bears only a slight resemblance to June 17, 1994 as experienced by the film's audience.

And this brings us back to Morgen's opening claim. Just because Morgen claims that this is a thoroughly experiential film, throwing the viewer back in time to 1994, doesn't mean that we have to believe him. As in all films, what the audience sees on-screen is highly curated. The very editing itself is nothing if not a subtle form of reflection, offering moments of commentary through juxtapositions that are anything but neutral. Jumping from OJ's 1985 NFL Hall of Fame induction speech in which he thanks Nicole for some of the best years of his life to an image of a bloody garment at the Simpson residence in 1994 says something. Bringing together footage of a high-speed car chase and a clip of OJ running through an airport on Hertz's dime says something. Apposing the Rangers Stanley Cup victory parade with the throngs who lined the California freeways to gawk at and cheer for OJ's infamous white Bronco says something. Of course, films are supposed to say things. That's the point. And no, this documentary does not faithfully represent how anyone actually experienced that warm June day, but, again, this is the point of film: to selectively tell a story, bringing together diverse elements while omitting needless ones. Morgen does that in spades.


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