Hoop Dreams (my Blu-ray review)

I’d be hard put to name another documentary that feels so much like a narrative feature. Not that Steve James’ Hoop Dreams looks like a fiction film; it most certainly does not. The hand-held cameras, extreme lenses, and low video resolution makes it look like the cinéma vérité documentary that it is. But James and his team edited the film so as to bring the audience through a fiction-like journey, with charismatic protagonists, interesting and likeable supporting players, plot twists, joy, disappointment, and suspense.

The protagonists: William Gates and Arthur Agee, two African-American teenage boys from bad Chicago neighborhoods. They have all the disadvantages you’d expect from that environment–poverty-stricken mothers, absentee fathers, filthy streets, and violence all around them. But they have an advantage. They’re both basketballs prodigies, discovered early on by talent scouts. If they can make an impression on their high school teams, and get good enough grades academically, they just might be able to get into a good college on a scholarship. And from there, if they’re really lucky, they might eventually go professional in the NBA.

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James and his crew followed both boys (who are rarely shown together) through all four years of high school. Scouts get them into St. Joseph’s, a Catholic school with a strong basketball team. But there are setbacks. Agee loses his scholarship, and is forced to drop out mid-semester and return to public school. Gates manages to stay in St. Joseph’s, in part because of a rich sponsor, but he injures his knee, loses time in recovery, and has a difficult time regaining his previous abilities.

The picture is really about the American dream, and the people whom society all but disqualifies from attaining it. Gates and Agee get a rare chance only because of exceptional talent. (One college mentioned had only seven black students; six of them on the basketball team.) But it’s a chance that involves absurdly hard work and damaging physical punishment. And after all that, maybe, a very slight possibility of a lucrative but short career. The film doesn’t touch much on how colleges exploit their players, but John Oliver laid it out pretty well recently.

As you get to know Gates, Agee, and their families over the nearly three-hour running time (and the five years of shooting), you become completely invested in their story. You want these two kids to succeed, even as you realize that the kids they’re competing against are just as desperate and just as worthy.

Hoop Dreams becomes exceptionally exciting and suspenseful in the game scenes . With details of the play intercut with reaction shots of parents and coaches, James and his collaborators bring you to the edge of your seat over and over again. More than once, either Gates or Agee finds himself in a place where only he can win the big game and bring on the happy ending.

But sometimes, he fumbles. That’s when you remember that what you’re watching isn’t fiction.

First Impression

imageLike most Criterion discs, Hoop Dreams comes in a clear plastic case. The cover photo shows a red basketball jersey with the film’s title. Open the box and you get–aside from the disc–a fold-out with two articles: “Serious Game” by John Edgar Wideman, and “The Real Thing,” by Robert Greene. Turn it over, and you’ll find credits for both the movie and the disc, along with a collage of photos and news clips.

When you insert the disc into your player, you’ll see the standard Criterion menu on the left side of the screen. As is standard for Criterion Blu-rays, there’s a timeline and the ability to create bookmarks. When you insert the disc into a player in which you’ve inserted it before, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Criterion did as good a job as is reasonably possible making Hoop Dreams look good on Blu-ray, but there’s only so much that can be done. This film was shot on standard-definition analogue videotape in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Blu-ray presents the picture in a 1080i transfer. But when you convert 340 lines to 1080, you still have only 340 lines worth of information. The picture is soft, and shows a great deal of video artifacts.

That’s the way the film always looked, so I can’t complain. But it doesn’t really need to be seen on Blu-ray. I suspect that the DVD–$8 to $10 cheaper–looks just as good or at least very, very close.

How It Sounds

The movie was originally mixed in Ultra Stereo, a competitor and to a certain extent a clone of Dolby Stereo. Criterion provides a four-track, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack decoded from the original two-track, four-channel mix.

The filmmakers made almost no use of three of those channels, and you could easily listen to the film through an excellent sound system and assume it’s in mono. In other words, the sound isn’t impressive, but it was never meant to impress in that way.

And the Extras

  • Filmmaker Commentary: Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx. Recorded in 2005. I haven’t yet listened to it.
  • Subjects Commentary: Agee and Gates, also recorded in 2005. I’m really looking forward to listening to this one.
  • Life After Hoop Dreams: 1080i, 40 minutes. Made in 2014. Covers a lot of ground about Agee, Gates, and their families, with James and cinematographer Peter Gilbert as on-screen narrators. The most interesting realization is that Hoops Dreams itself changed their lives and opened doors for them, even though neither of them got into the NBA.
  • Siskel & Ebert: 1080i, 15 minutes. The famous critics had a lot to do with this film’s success. This selection of clips from their show gets a bit repetitive, but it’s fun seeing the two of them again.
  • Additional scenes: 1080i, 21 minutes. Deleted scenes and earlier versions of scenes that made the final cut. Occasionally interesting, but nothing really exceptional.
  • Music video: 1080i, 3 minutes. Of the film’s theme song. Directed by cinematographer Peter Gilbert. Not to my taste.
  • Trailers: The disc has two of them. It’s painfully obvious which one was made for white people.
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