Sunday, May 29, 2005


I have never been a fan of horror, either literary or cinematic: I don't find being frightened pleasurable at all. However, I do remember reading two very good short stories by the horror writer Ramsey Campbell; and when I saw a new novel by him, The Overnight, on a library shelf and discovered that it was about a sinister bookstore, the combination of the author and the concept persuaded me to pick it up.

The book turns out to be set in a chain bookstore in England, though the chain is American in origin. (It's inspired by Campbell's experiences working for a Borders, though I doubt Borders will be grateful for the publicity.) The manager is a gung-ho, insensitive American (the day after one employee dies, he suggests that the other employees "remember" her by taking over her shelving duties), and Campbell does a very good job of portraying employees' petty feuds, humiliations and embarrassments: I really don't recall reading a better fiction portrayal of "retail sales." This part of the book I found compelling. On the other hand, when the Nameless Things showed up and began picking off the employees, I just got bored.

I recently watched the Criterion Collection's new DVD of the acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams, which follows two black inner-city basketball-playing teenagers with great potential, along with their families, through their four years of high school, and examines what happens to that potential. The DVD has two audio commentaries, one by the filmmakers and one by the two main characters themselves (now no longer teenagers), both of which add depth to an already rich film.

After watching the film again and listening to the commentaries, I was inspired to read the book Hoop Dreams by Ben Joravsky, which promised to go into further even depth on the teens and their families. I was severely disappointed, however. While the book does contain some information neither in the film nor the two commentary tracks, the writing was so formulaic that reading the book brought me neither pleasure or any feeling of insight. An example, from early in the book, when Arthur Agee, one of the two teenagers, shows his mother Sheila the business card given to him by a high-school scout: "It felt real, but surfaces were deceiving. She had known so many con men and had seen so many scams. Her life had been filled with so many disappointments, and she wondered whether anything good would ever happen to her again. Still, maybe this card and its owner, the big man who so excited her son, were signs of good things to come. She decided to have hope." (16) To me, this feels like Joravsky could have written it before he had even met Sheila, and just dropped it ready-made into the slot.

Reading the book did have one benefit: it gave me a greater appreciation of the film's accomplishment. In the film, the two families come across as complex human beings. In the book, they're cliches. The Agees in particular are reduced to a stereotypical inner-city family: the smooth-talking, criminal and wife-beating father, the abused and victimized mother, and the wisecracking, cynical teenage son.

One omission from the book is symptomatic. As far as I can tell (the last third of the book I merely skimmed through), nowhere in Joravsky's account of the families is there a mention that they're being filmed for a documentary. This isn't a minor omission. As the commentary tracks made clear, the filmmakers didn't try to make themselves invisible, even if they'd been able to. They became a part of the families' lives. And the two teens themselves knew that they were being filmed, and that that set them apart from everyone else in their schools and neighborhoods. (In fact, the filmmakers would make compilations of the dunks by the two teens that they'd filmed, and give them to the teens to show around.) Joravsky doesn't explain why he left out the filmmakers (not in the book, anyway), but I can guess: he wanted to present the families as representing black inner-city families in general, and to acknowledge that they were, atypically, being filmed would interfere with this.

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