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Film: Hoop nightmares

Movies | The film that may have given a Kentucky teen a deadly idea

Issue: "Pensacola," Dec. 20, 1997

The first play George Washington ever read was Cato: A Tragedy, by Joseph Addison. "It was his all-time favorite," biographer Willard Sterne Randall recounts in George Washington: A Life. The drama, which Washington encountered at the age of 13, was "a tale of an uncompromising, incorruptible general who defied tyranny and yet could be compassionate to those loyal to him." If it is no coincidence that Washington himself became such a general, then perhaps it's no coincidence that a troubled youth in West Paducah, Ky., who watched the film The Basketball Diaries at a similar age, suggested that he imitated it last week when he opened fire on classmates, killing three and injuring five. Our culture is still reluctant to conclude that life imitates art, and we won't end the debate here. But because of the unanswered questions about 14-year-old Michael Carneal's motive for the multiple murders, it's worth taking a closer look at the film he told police he had watched. The Basketball Diaries is a vile, violent film, the video equivalent of a Ramones album. The urban street motifs and the moral vacuum combine into a smirking endorsement of death. There is no place for love; there is no trace of light. The movie opens as Jim (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains, "When I was young, I tried making friends with God by inviting him to my house to watch the World Series. He never showed." Before the opening credits are through, we've witnessed a brutal thrashing by a sadistic Irish priest, the "heroes" sniffing Carbona cleaning fluid and vomiting on a guy, and the theft of money and watches from a visiting basketball team. This is anything but a sports movie. Sports movies as a rule depict a quest for excellence; The Basketball Diaries won't admit the existence of excellence. This is Rudy as a drop-out and a drug addict; it's Rocky as a weak nihilist who can't be bothered. Neither is it an anti-drug movie. True, it has the formulaic ending, which the Boston Globe described as Jim's finding "his rehabbed way back to literary and rock stardom-an honest busted stud brandishing the ticket stub from a trip to hell and back." It praises heroin use with faint damnation. Indeed, the film is occasionally accused of being behind "heroin chic," though that charge can perhaps be better leveled at the book that inspired the movie. And several scenes work well as slow-motion tutorials in "cooking" and injecting heroin. The story (in the movie) is nothing innovative. A promising basketball star is distracted and nearly destroyed by drugs. He sinks to Dante-esque depths, then cleans himself up and rises again to sober respectability. Along the way, we are treated to memorable scenes of random, guiltless violence and degradation. Neither the director, Scott Kalvert, nor the characters show any compassion for the pathetic neighborhood prostitute, played by Juliette Lewis (of Natural Born Killers fame). In the film she serves merely as a yardstick by which to measure Jim's downfall (eventually, he becomes a prostitute himself to get drug money). Jim and his friends begin mugging old women and burglarizing candy stories; they advance to killing a drug dealer because they weren't happy with the quality of his product. And all of this occurs in a completely morality-free context. One of the most disturbing scenes (by no means the only one, or the worst) is a dream sequence in which Jim, dressed in black leather, strides into a classroom, takes out a shotgun, and begins slaughtering his classmates. The dream passes quickly, with no comment or condemnation. After all, it's only a movie. There is not a single positive image: The priests are vicious; the coach is a pederast; the mother is an ineffectual shrew. The two characters who reject drugs-a teammate of Jim's and his gang named Neutron, and an aging neighborhood athlete named Reggie-are such minor characters that they're little more than perfunctory warning labels. It's unthinkable that an attentive parent would knowingly allow a teen to watch this movie, but teens are the intended audience. (If you want to know who a movie is aimed at, take a look at the soundtrack. When it includes the likes of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, it's not playing to a thirtysomething crowd.) I took an unscientific poll of my high-school Sunday school class, and nearly half the kids had seen the R-rated movie; most rented it (they say that's pathetically easy to do) because of Mr. DiCaprio; to their credit, none of those who rented it said they could stand to watch it all the way through. And that led to a good discussion of what we use to entertain ourselves. Perhaps a larger discussion should begin, a discussion about why there is such a shortage of positive models for our kids. Where are the worthy heroes? Deconstructed, it seems. Cato is forgotten and Washington is a convicted slaver. Even if teens are looking for the Good and the True, it will be hard to find at the video store.

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