Kudos to the Independent Weekly for an interesting and thoughtful series this week on the 20th anniversary of the movie "Bull Durham," including a first-person account of one man's greatest Bulls game ever, a remembrance with legendary Bull and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, and a look at locations and extras from the 1988 film.
Still, the most intriguing piece is one from ex-N&O writer G.D. Gearino, a "longtime Raleigh resident" who decides to take on the mythos of the movie in a conventional wisdom-tweaking column titled "Bullshitty."
While Gearino takes on "Bull Durham" over the accuracy (or lack thereof) of its depiction of the minor leagues and the quality of the film's acting, he reserves his parting shot for what he sees as the anonymity of Durham's canvas in the movie:
None of this would matter, though, if the film had succeeded in portraying Durham in all its interesting, flawed, diverse, chaotic glory. The fact that a movie this bad is hailed as great is only one stumper to be pondered here. The other is why so much civic pride has been piled on a film that shortchanges the real place it sought to portray.
Aside from the scenes at the old Durham Athletic Park and a few shots of the downtown skyline, nothing in the movie gives you any sense of Durham as a specific, unique place. For all that it imparts about that history-rich city, it might as well have been filmed on a studio backlot....
This is why I've been puzzled for two decades by Durham's embrace of a movie that treats it as just another Nowheresville. The city portrayed in Bull Durham is just as colorless and uninteresting as Durham residents frequently declare Raleigh to be. Yet they adored the film when it came out, and 20 years later have launched themselves into a new round of celebration.
Welcome to the white-bread world, y'all. It's amusing to see you embrace your inner blandness.
Ah, Mr. Gearino. Where to begin?
There's no denying that the film's choice of Durham is, on the face of it, accidental -- save for producer Thom Mount's love of his hometown. There is no scent of tobacco described over the town, as Gearino decries; there is no Nuke-Crash scene set on the campus of Duke; there's no sense of Annie going down to meet an old friend down at RTP.
Still, Durham is the perfect spiritual location for the film, for the Bull City shares with every Class A minor leaguer the same pedigree: that of the relentless underdog.
The players portrayed in the movie are not polished stars waiting for their turn on the cover of Sports Illustrated; they're instead to some extent a band of misfits, from the religiously-obsessed virgin to the superstitious fielder to the goofy coach.
They endure the indignities of the underdog, from long hot bus rides to ancient and decrepit facilities. Plus, most obviously: they're simply not very good through most of the movie.
Yet when Crash Davis tells his story of making it to The Show, the entire team goes silent, wanting to hear his retelling of the most special twenty-one days of his life, rapt at the dream they've aspired to for so long.
And in the wake of such inspiration, and more than a little bit of loosening-up and fun, the team starts winning, a scrappy crew who won't accept defeat.
It's a role that Durham is used to: the underdog city that never
seems to catch the respect it deserves; a city used to being the butt
of jokes; and yet, a place that doesn't take itself too seriously, that
knows how to have fun, that somehow finds a way to win.
The story of the fictional cinematic Bulls is one that resonates with every Durhamite proud to live in this city.
Durham's status as an underdog is nothing new. It was an upstart railroad crossing submerged into Orange County at its founding. By the mid-twentieth century, it was tagged as an old industrial town decades before industry would finally leave. In the 80s, its downtown was nearly abandoned for good.
Each time, our friends to the east -- and elsewhere in the state -- have left Durham behind as a has-been. And each time, Durham's remade itself, against all odds, into something more. A city that manages, against all odds and at times against all home, to be great.
Just like our Bulls of film history.
If that was the only linkage between Durham the city and Durham the setpiece for "Bull Durham," I suspect that it would be a reason enough for us to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this film.
Still, I think Gearino sells the Durham-"Bull Durham" connection short for a second reason. Even though the film never references Durham specifically, the city is a centerpiece of the film in so many ways.
Not least of which is its representation of a very atypical Southern city. When you see Annie Savoy walking from her Mangum St. Victorian home down to the old DAP, amidst a rainy dusk, try to imagine that scene taking place in, say, Raleigh.
You can't. Because there's no way in heck anybody would walk to the ballpark there. Instead, you'd see a sea of station wagons driving into Devereaux Meadows from North Raleigh, honking their horns as they searched for a space in a parking lot somewhere.
Yet the portrayal of scenes like this Annie moment feels, to those of us who live around the DAP, like a genuine reflection of life in this neighborhood. Replace the DAP with the neighboring farmer's market and it's an image you might see any Saturday, for instance.
Similarly, when Kevin Costner's Crash Davis walks down Morgan St. along the edge of the old Liggett tobacco warehouses, a decade before they became West Village, the hulking structures are as a character in the film, their bulk and grandeur and inaccessibility a contrast against the emotionally-hurting catcher as he walks, lonely, through the city.
For that matter, the gossipy, chatty nature of the residents in the movie is hardly a small-town stereotype applied to a faceless canvas. Spend a few months in Durham; read the neighborhood listservs, hang out at Bull McCabe's for a night, swing by a City Council meeting. And trust me: you'll get your ear bent.
Phil Szostak described this characteristic of Durham as the rationale behind his design of the Durham Performing Arts Center, providing a glass facade so as to see Durhamites debating the performance they're watching during intermissions. Durhamites love to talk, debate, and argue, Szostak said. And it's as accurate in the new Broadway facility as it was in the aging DAP.
I don't blame Gearino for his assumptions on "Bull Durham." For he's admitted he's a Raleighite. And Raleighites, for all the wonderful qualities of their city, tend to see the world just slightly differently than we Durhamites do.
Raleigh is the small city that desperately wants to be big. Durham, on the other hand, is in many ways the big city -- a world-class employment center, one of the nation's best universities, medical excellence -- that still aspires to be a small city at heart.
And it's that disconnect in worldview that explains so much of the
never-ending war of words we see taking place up and down I-40.
In that vein, the Durham canvas present in "Bull Durham" is every
bit the place our residents love: gritty, authentic, close-knit,
spunky, underappreciated -- by all but the true Durhamite, that is.
Is "Bull Durham" more bull than Bull City? Hardly. It's a hard concept for residents of the go-go City of Oaks to wrap their heads around, perhaps -- but it's something so many Durhamites just understand, in our heads and hearts.