Glory Days

It’s fourth and long for high school football, but filmmakers still love the friday night lights.

THE GRANDEUR OF TEXAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL is fading fast. “All the way to State”? For most Texans the pep rally cry is a yawner. District championships are almost irrelevant, and the ratio of champion to mediocre-caliber teams allowed into the state playoffs now rivals that of the NBA. For decades the nation’s top breeding ground for college players, Texas has lost that distinction to Florida and California. In high schools that once boasted gridiron dynasties, football is not even fashionable. Soccer and lacrosse are cool. The temple is shaken and fallen in ruin.

Luckily, the movies have always had more faith in legend than reality. The movies love Texas; lately, with two independent documentaries and three Hollywood features about the schoolboy game in varied stages of development and production, the movies seem to love Texas high school football. And why not? To the unjaded, another word for “obsolete” is “timeless.” Under the Friday night lights, a crowded stadium shines like a festive island, a county fair. Football has a natural story arc leading to a climax, and in Texas the ritual is played out with exotic fervor. At the high school level, all teams can be champions, any boy a king. Cinematically, high school football has all the right stuff: costumes, music, motion. It’s funny, it’s sexy, it lionizes youth, and it glorifies violence. Where else is there more celebration of our rowdy, lost frontier? Pass the popcorn.

Two of the upcoming Hollywood features are comedies. Planned as a Dallas-area production, Universal’s Starkers, Texas tells the story of an unscrupulous sports agent who gets roped into coaching a high school football team in a town where everyone is obsessed with winning. Paramount Pictures and MTV Films started shooting Varsity Blues around Austin in April. The starting quarterback gets hurt; can the second-stringer, played by James Van Der Beek of the TV show Dawson’s Creek, win the big game? As a story line, that’s not exactly throwing the bomb. Director Brian Robbins and producer Mike Tollin are best known for children’s and sports programming as well as last year’s slapstick Good Burger. But their credits also include an Oscar- and Emmy-nominated Turner Pictures documentary about baseball’s Hank Aaron. Tollin describes walking among tearful losers of a Texas playoff game: “It was the end of an era in their lives, the end of being at center stage.” Jon Voight will play thecoach in Varsity Blues,  and Voight brings charisma to anything he’s in. Still, the forecast for both films is light, formula entertainment for teens.

In the movie business, the films of greatest promise sometimes never get seen. Game Day is a thirty-minute documentary shot by Houston’s Geoff Winningham, a superb photographer whose 1979 book, Rites of Fall: High School Football in Texas, is one of the best about the high school game. In 1982 he followed and filmed several teams but had to cut the project short before season’s end when he hurt his back. In 1992 Don Howard, a former Waco High quarterback, asked if he could try an edit. The sixteen-year-old footage gives the film a time-warped Boogie Nights feel, but the result is a poignant, loving, deadpan howl.

“This is our Olympics,” an administrator bellows at an Odessa Permian pep rally. “This is our World Series!” Winningham rhapsodizes about the game’s drama: “Church revivals are the only things in our culture that even come close to the intensity of it.” The offbeat short film has scant commercial prospects, but Howard remains hopeful. Maybe it will air on PBS, as did a previous short documentary of his, Letter From Waco .

The second documentary is a tantalizing yet problematic prospect—a full-length film about the football powerhouse Sweetwater Mustangs, to be directed by Brett Morgen, a New Yorker. Morgen enlisted two illustrious filmmakers as executive producers: Peter Gilbert, the cinematographer and co-producer of Hoop Dreams (the celebrated 1994 documentary about Chicago inner-city basketball), and Barbara Kopple, a two-time Oscar winner for documentaries. Though some locals were uneasy about outsiders treading on their shrine, last April Sweetwater’s school board voted 5—1 to cooperate. “But,” says coach Tom Ritchey, “just before two-a-days started in August, they called and said they hadn’t been able to raise the money. Said they’d keep trying. We haven’t heard much lately.”

The most intriguing Texas high school football film of all—an adaptation of Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, H. G. Bissinger’s classic book about football at Odessa Permian—may also never get made, though not for lack of passion on the part of Austin director Richard Linklater. It must gall him that Universal was pouring money into the comedy Starkers, Texas while pulling the plug on his film, which until recently the studio had planned to make. “It’s a safer bet to make a moronic movie than one that’s real,” Linklater grumbles. The éminence grise of the slacker generation, it turns out, is a self-confident jock. In the seventies Linklater played backup quarterback for a Huntsville high school and then transferred to Houston Bellaire, where he was a college-caliber baseball player. Though many people in Odessa resent Bissinger’s 1989 book, Linklater says the players on that Mojo team want his movie made. If another studio commits (or Universal changes its mind), he’ll shoot it in Odessa, and he says the script he wrote is faithful to the book, which he finds heroic. “I want it to be like The Seven Samurai.  I want the audience to cry when they get beat by Dallas Carter.”

Because of a troubled business history of the property, Friday Night Lights may never find the screen. But the director swears that in the next five years, he is going to make a movie about the Texas high school game. “On this subject I’m like Spike Lee: ‘Nobody but me can make a movie about Malcolm X.’”

But why? What is this elusive great football film about? “Oh,” he answers, smiling at the drill. “Education. Youthful striving. Passion.

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