POSTED ON AUGUST 7, 2013:
Two documentaries mirror success
Life in the fishbowl of success always seemed like a disconcerting prospect. Having once harbored dreams of becoming a successful musician, I experienced some sense of relief that the bullet was dodged after seeing the wonderful Radiohead documentary, Meeting People is Easy. Granted, it's Radiohead (perhaps Thom Yorke would have something to be depressed about even if he were a plumber), but the sense of living in a fishbowl imparted a feeling of dystopian solitude that I thankfully never get to experience in life, as I know it.
But the flip side is missing out on passion; single-minded devotion. With Radiohead, it's creating incredible music. With the nearly-twin sisters, Serena and Venus Williams, as told in the new documentary, Venus and Serena, it was rising to the top of the world of professional tennis.
From Compton, Calif., the Williams sisters, born 13 months apart, became unlikely champions not just because of the color of their skin in the mostly white world of tennis -- Arthur Ashe being the notable exception -- but also where they came from (Compton isn't really known for cranking out tennis champs).
But due to their enterprising father Richard (who confesses to never having really cared about tennis) and his incessant push to train them, Venus and Serena Williams blew up in the '90s as teen prodigies, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open among other prestigious competitions. Richard, doting to the point of creepiness, oversaw every aspect of their training and careers, but it was the talent and sheer physicality of the Williams sisters that brought them ever increasing success on the court and international fame.
Kicking Your Ass in Stereo. At pretty much anything they do. They are the subject of an eponymous film about their careers and their Stage-Mom-Level-Crazy dad in Venus and Serena.
COURTESY OF MOVIES.COM
Many things hard fought for, time can easily take away, especially when it comes to health. Tennis, a high impact sport that takes a major toll on the body, soon begins to wear both of the sisters down. Venus begins suffering from an autoimmunity condition that hamstrings her game, while Serena is sidelined entirely by a pulmonary embolism that nearly cost her everything. But like many people so driven by competition and success, they don't let adversity keep them down.
Directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, Venus and Serena is a fairly exhaustive, if not entirely fascinating look at the iconic sisters, whose physicality and presence on the court matched their championship skills with a racket. Jumping back and forth, in a narrative parallel to the game itself, the film tells the story of their meteoric success throughout the '90s while chronicling their comeback in the last three years as they struggle to recover from their ailments to reclaim their status as the best female tennis players in the world. It's not a particularly intimate portrait, but they do let some of the rough edges show, particularly their personal rivalry and their frustrations with overcoming their amazing successes when their health issues take them down -- and, most famously when Serena has it out with a referee in a series of expletive-laden outbursts that mirror those of the memorably prickly John McEnroe (who also appears here and unsurprisingly, backs her up).
The film seems to gloss over their boycott of the Indian Wells Masters, when their withdrawal minutes before the semifinals prompted boos from the crowd, more than few racist epithets, and the allegation that Richard Williams mandated which daughter was to win when they played together.
As a look at their lives, successes and failures, Venus and Serena is entirely, if only, adequate. Luminaries from sports, entertainment and politics chime in, from Chris Rock to Bill Clinton to McEnroe, about the sisters' pivotal effect on the sport they dominated. A cool soundtrack by Wyclef Jean and the unfettered access given to the sisters and their family all give the appearance of well-produced work that occasionally reveals some genuine truths about fame, racism and the Williams' unique dynamic (Charlie Williams is a ladies man who figured out how to monetize at least two of his many kids).
But it lacks any sort of slickness or visual inventiveness, and often Venus and Serena feels more like it was commissioned as a vanity project by the film's namesakes. They suffer for their sport, clearly, but were they ever compelled to it, or were they just indoctrinated by an opportunist father? At least when Thom Yorke suffered the existential malaise that birthed a song like How to Disappear Completely, he suffered it because of choices that he made for himself. And it doesn't ring hollow.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself
He was always that odd fellow on television commercials when I was a kid, hawking everything from cars to garage door openers to Intellevision videogame systems with his blue-blooded diction and curiously literate vocabulary. George Plimpton, tall, gangly and slightly disheveled with that shock of ivory hair, always seemed like a delightful nerd.
Which is why Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself is so oddly delightful, too. I never would have guessed this guy hung out with Hugh Hefner. Or that he'd done a sliver of the many things that George Plimpton made a name for himself trying -- and generally failing at.
Born to a well-to-do Massachusetts family, his father a prominent lawyer, his mother a prominent mother, George Ames Plimpton, in a way had parents not too dissimilar from the Williams sisters. His father pushed him incessantly to hard work and success, demanding a crushing level of responsibility for the continued prestige of the family name.
But the daydreaming, decidedly unserious George promptly became the first of his line to wash out of Exeter. At Harvard (a weird thing to say after "wash out") he was more concerned with bird-watching, writing for the Lampoon and romancing the ladies -- though war did briefly interrupt his generally congenial life.
But it was only after he lucked into editing the highly influential Paris Review that Plimpton's charmed life became the kind he was in control of.
Getting that gig led Plimpton to a stint with Sports Illustrated. But instead of covering scores and stats and the like, Plimpton believed that to write about the game (any game) seriously he had to become a part of the team. Be it football, where he famously started as quarterback for one game in 1963 with the Detroit Lions to hockey, where he played goalie for the Bruins to becoming a high-wire circus performer, Plimpton essentially did it all. A jack of all trades and master of none--except for his writing and the 30 books his adventures spawned, most notably, Paper Lion. Hence the birth of what he dubbed "participatory journalism".
I Was Running. Real-life Forrest Gump (with added IQ points) George Plimpton did a lot of awesome things in his life. Seriously. Check out some of them in Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself.
Written and directed by Tom Bean and Luke Poling, Plimpton! is a delightfully light-hearted look at a wonderfully light-hearted man whose near-bumbling adventures through life take on a sense of fantastic fable. If you knew nothing about the guy, one couldn't be blamed for wondering if Forrest Gump wasn't somewhat modeled after his adventures (sans the low-IQ) as Plimpton seemingly pops up during all kinds of pivotal moments, including standing next to Sirhan Sirhan just as Robert Kennedy was assassinated (indeed, he helped wrest the gun from his hand).
Plimpton! makes extensive use of archival footage (he died in 2003 at the age of 76) as well as some talking head interviews from the likes of Hefner, as well as Plimpton's family, luminaries and contemporaries like documentarian Ken Burns, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, asshat James Lipton, and a Kennedy or two. All provide warm insights into Plimpton and his place in the lexicon of American literature, culture and his unlikely influence on society.
It's films like these, both, that inspire the imagination to lives lived outside of fear, redefining one's own limits even within the rigidity of your roots. But with Plimpton!, the story is like an American fairy tale full of whimsy that feels completely uncalculated because of the man's complete lack of artifice.
Send all comments and feedback regarding Cinema to email@example.com.
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A62759