Design Meets Documentary: Gunnin' for That #1 Spot
Today's documentary films rarely surprise me. These days, it seems doc-makers don't have the talent or the intuition to know how much distance to take from their subjects--either they're alienated from the reality of what they show by prejudice or partisanship (e.g., Borat), or they're complicit, complacent, slavish (Shine a Light, An Inconvenient Truth or any of the other recent hagiographic political docs that lack contrasting perspectives). Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys has made an antidote to this poisoning of an art form: the new must-see documentary Gunnin' for That #1 Spot, about elite high-school basketball players coming together for a historic game/summit meeting at Rucker Park in Harlem.
If you think this isn't for you because you're not a basketball fan, hold up. Great sports movies, fiction and non-, can help the uninitiated to understand the passion so many invest in the on- and off-court achievements of professional athletes. And Yauch has the moviemaking skill to universalize the eight young players on whom he focuses. Through a marvelously paced hip-hop soundtrack and hyped-up yet experiential sound design, through visionary editing, and especially through graphic creativity, Yauch imparts a compelling sense of what's at stake for the "Elite 24" participants.
Perhaps the most memorable example of graphic design in Gunnin' is when Yauch introduces each participant in an unposed, revealing freeze-frame, around which he creates a mock basketball card bearing the player's name. The trading-card imagery introduces each young man's social destiny, but the candid facial expressions and gestures captured on the cards take one's appreciation beyond social convention. This gallery invites contemplation, not exploitation or tabloid speculation. Yauch's narrative doesn't privilege one player's perspective or experience, or manipulate the evidence (as reality-show TV producers do) to create "good" and "bad" players. After all, to the true trading-card collector, a complete set is worth more than the sum of its parts.
The use of design techniques in documentary might seem specious a la the reenactments in Errol Morris movies, but it's actually the sign of Yauch's ethical, admirable reticence. During the game at Rucker Park, the play-by-play announcer gifts every baller with a nickname (Michael Beasley gets "Be Easy," the towering, mop-headed Kyle Singler is christened "The Wig"); immediately, the name appears as a graphic stamp marking the footage. Some players' nicknames get revised as the game goes on; some get more than one. Yauch shows us all the names and versions of names, letting the viewer follow the progression as each player is received into the vernacular that surrounds Rucker.
There's an implicit humility to the use of graphics in this movie. Through his interventions into the frame, Yauch clarifies his own fascination with these callow champions. For the older players in the movie, the Elite 24 game represents their final unaffiliated moment before they are caught in the mad cash- and status-grab of the NCAA. It would have been naive of Yauch to emphasize competition. Instead, he employs a battery of aural and visual techniques (brilliant pop montage) to commemorate what's incorruptible in these elite young athletes.
Another important difference between Gunnin' and most contemporary documentaries: Yauch's movie demands to be seen in a theater. The closing-credits sequence of the Elite 24 gathered on bleachers for a photo shoot, set to Jay-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," requires communal, big-screen appreciation. Today, Gunnin' opens on screens in Chicago, Dallas, and Seattle, with more lucky cities to come.
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