The Seabiscuits

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 15, 2008 07:16pm | Post a Comment
It's award season, which can only mean one thing: It's time for the Amoeba's 5th annual Seabiscuits! Let me back up for a second. For those who have never worked at Amoeba, our jargon can sound (in my Mr. T voice) confusing, confounding and sometimes downright curious. As a customer, you may have found yourself being told by one of our helpful staff to "check the 'hat' adjacent to the 'blueline waterfall' while I go check 'Wally',"  leaving you scratching your buzzing noggin in psychedelic wonder. Well, one of those jargon words we use is "evergreen" which, somewhat counter-intuitively, refers to titles that will always be in demand (and not to titles that will only sell on "the Green Tag Island," where we exile bargain titles to.

When Seabiscuit came out on DVD, right before Christmas of 2003, there was an audible buzz (or "nicker," in horse language). It was released in widescreen and fullscreen, a sign of its broad appeal to both film-lovers and people who "don't like it when they cut the heads off with those black bars." Several films attached themselves like filmic remoras to Seabiscuit's celluloid whale shark, hoping to feed off of the crumbs of interest -- or maybe to be purchased by the confused and functionally illiterate. There was, as there often is, debate about whether or not the film would be an evergreen. It didn't prove to be ... But let's go merrily back in time to the early oughts, back to 2003. It was the year a second space shuttle blew up, SARS was discovered, Bush landed on a ship flying a banner reading "Mission Accomplished," the last vocho rolled off the assembly line in Mexico, Gary Ridgway (the Green River Killer) admitted to killing 48 women and Jacko was charged with being a chester (again). And in the dream factory the year of the Sheep proved, in fact, to be the year of the horse.

The Baltimore Sun's Michael Sragow wrote, insightfully, "Seabiscuit revives the sweeping pleasures of movies that address and respect the mass audience, raising the common denominator instead of pandering to it. This crowd-pleaser rouses honest and engulfing cheers."

The New York Post's Lou Lumenick waxed prophetically, "A thrilling, beautifully crafted, fact-based horse story that's not merely the summer's finest movie, but may well be the one to catch come Academy Awards time."

The Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington touted, over rising strings and brass, "A grand ride. Sleek, beautiful and packed with emotion, not too flashy but full of heart, this is a movie worthy of its unlikely yet glorious subject: Depression-era America's best-loved racehorse and the two races that made him a legend."

The Portland Oregonian's Shawn Levy echoed his anachronistic use of the word grand when he said, "This is grand, inspiring entertainment of a sort that Hollywood aspires to and rarely achieves. "

There were only a couple of dissenting votes in the Critics' Congress: party-pooper Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader, apparently crippled by cynicism wrote, "
Maybe the magic will work for those who loved the book, but I found this film stultifyingly self-important and, despite the regularity with which it cuts to the chase, weirdly static."
The Christian Science Monitor's David Sterritt cattily dismissed, "I found much of it as emotionally rigged as a crooked horse race. "

A couple years later, when Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro shattered a leg. The still-horse-loving world gasped and watched as the news gave daily updates on his condition. Of course, approximately 800 thoroughbreds die from racing-related accidents every year in the U.S. alone-- but they're not all champs, so who cares-- right? Barbaro was killed the next year, a martyr for the glamorous sport of horse racing.

Various horses making the ultimate sacrifice for our amusement

I never saw Seabiscuit. The previews made it look like a particularly hokey Hallmark Hall of Fame movie that you only have to suffer through if you're trying to justify paying for cable. But the Seabiscuits aren't about what movies I've seen and haven't. No-- they're a celebration of hype and hyperbole that makes people briefly go nuts over a movie (more often than not flaunting Oscars, plaudits and popularity) only to quietly retire to the bargain and clearance pastures a few months later, never again to arouse interest, lending to friends, or any possibility of viewings by those who didn't see the film during its brief, shining "moment."

Some highlights of past Seabiscuit Award Ceremonies...

In 2005, the Aviator earned five Academy Awards. A cottage industry of Howard Hughes-related documentaries popped up in its wake as a hungry public seemed insatiably starving for info on a guy obsessed with peas (what sane person isn't?), who built a plane that wouldn't fly and saved his urine in jars... sorry-- that's all I know about him.

I was wrong that year. I thought Crash, one of most-praised films (and the worst of the decade so far) was a sure thing, but it surprised me by remaining immensely popular thanks to an endless stream of concerned Europeans who for some reason think it's important to know what some deluded, preachy, contrived, laughable, paranoid, Westside fantasy imagines L.A. is like without even a hint of realism. The race ended up being a close one between the Aviator and Ray with the latter narrowly losing.

Last year, early Seabiscuit-watchers predicted The Da Vinci Code would win a Seabiscuit. It was from Ron Howard (who will get a lifetime achievement award if the Seabiscuit Academy has any sense). Everyone knows Beautiful Mind would've won a Seabiscuit if they'd been around back then. Anyway, we actually created a Da Vinci Code section at Amoeba for the innumerable documentaries released to cash in on the anticipation of hype expected to carry over from the inexplicably popular book. Interest exploded with anything having to do with secret societies like the Rosicrucians, Illuminati, Freemasons, Sororities and the Ramthan Cult (the people who defeated Atlantis and gave us What the Bleep Do We Know?) However, the movie arrived in theaters stillborn and generated, at best, indifferent shrugs from viewers who saw it and, at worst, indifferent shrugs that bordered on dislike.

This year, the special award, the Seabiscuit Tarzan Award, is being presented to Hollywood for giving us last year's Blood Diamond, Last King of Scotland, Catch a Fire, and the previous year's Constant Gardener. These insightful films from Hollywood showed us through the clear-sighted and compassionate blue eyes of Caucasians that morality on the Dark Continent is rarely... black and white. With lots of sweating and squinting performances from earnest, over-actors, viewers patted themselves on their collective back for caring about a continent which, despite not even having oil for us, gets people to wear GAP t-shirts showing their level of commitment and care. Well, not caring enough to bother watching a film actually made by Africans because, let's face it, they don't have any white celebrities now that Hollywood snagged Charlize Theron for our team.

The early buzz for next year's Seabiscuits is that the race for the special Seabiscuit Lawrence of Arabia award is going to be between In the Valley of Elah, Lamb For Lions, Rendition and Redacted. In these films, Hollywood reveals its courageous (though belated) enlistment in the War On the War On Terror in a way that makes understandable the mayhem in Mesopotamia for us simple-folk, by helpfully letting us peer into that scary, swarthy world with the clear-sighted, blue eyes of Caucasians actors.

So what DVD of 2008 will take home the Seabiscuit next year? My vote goes to Sweeney Todd. Defiantly loud, completely empty and bafflingly popular with both critics and audiences, it has a lot going for it. But it's not based on an Oprah-beloved book so it's hard to say.  I welcome your predictions! 

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Relevant Tags

Seabiscuits (1), Jargon (1), 2000s (40), Film Critics (1), Thoroughbreds (1), Hype (1), Howard Hughes (1), Ron Howard (2), Through Blue Eyes (2)