Film Logan Polk's Film Reviews Moving Pictures Ongoing Series

Moving Pictures Vol. 21: Stars Breathing Down

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Logan’s Moving Pictures takes on a truly arresting film from the early career of Marcus Wahlberg and Leonardo DiCaprio; The Basketball Diaries.

I don’t know how I managed to go the last 27 years without ever seeing The Basketball Diaries (it was released in ’95), especially considering it stars young Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg, two semi-favs later in their careers, but I did. I also don’t know what sparked my sudden interest in finally watching it, but here we are.

After Ryan died and I began sorting through his movies, I remember coming across the VHS tape and thinking “I’ve still never seen this,” and promptly tossing it aside. I don’t know if I gave it a second thought up until a few weeks ago when, for no reason I can fathom at all, it started its steady creep to the forefront of my thoughts. So, I hunted it down amongst the mountain of VHS tapes (since I couldn’t find a streaming copy) and set about rectifying the neglect.

Ryan, post-cancer and post high school, probably about the time he first watched The Basketball Diaries.

It’s a film that would inevitably come up any time we talked about either one of its two big stars, and one I think Ryan had fallen in love with shortly after high school. As I watched it I could easily understand why; there’s nothing quite like the angst of our late teenage years and seeing it mirrored as we’re going through it validates those feelings. Those days spent doing some of the most reckless things imaginable, certain you’re making very adult decisions about your life and your future, not understanding consequences can come years later. Confident that you know the right path, unable to even entertain the idea that the people older than you may have any sort of wisdom at all.

From our conversations about how I’d never bothered to watch it, I’d gleaned from my brother that the movie was about a kid who loses his shot as a star basketball player when he gets hooked on heroin. All of that was pretty spot on, even if it’s a little too succinct. What I didn’t know about The Basketball Diaries was that it’s based on the true story of writer/poet Jim Carroll, who kept volumes of written word and poetic expression that detailed his journey into and through the depths of addiction.

I’ll just be blunt and upfront by saying I did not like this film. I think it wastes its two leads, who often look like they’re grasping in the dark to connect to the material. It looks and feels so much like a music video from the ‘80s that I wasn’t the least bit surprised that when I looked up director Scott Kalvart and discovered he predominantly helmed music videos, with only one other film to his credit (Deuces Wild from 2002).

Sadly Kalvert passed away in 2014, because I don’t think the man was without talent. He directed most of Wahlburg’s videos when he was just Marky Mark, as well as some Cyndi Lauper, LL Cool J, Bobby Brown, New Kids on the Block, Billy Ocean, Guns n Roses, and several DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s (that’s Will Smith to you under 25 crowd) videos, including the masterpiece that is A Nightmare on My Street. But there’s no subtlety to any of that work, something completely understandable for a 3-minute video that will get circulated five times an hour on MTV. But for a movie about drug addiction, failed dreams, self-realization, and actualization, you need a slow burn and a gentle touch. There’s none of that here, and that’s the ultimate failure, for me, of The Basketball Diaries.

What it does get right, however, is that addiction and self-destructive behavior rarely just come from opportunity and boredom. It’s not something I understood at all until I was much older, but so much of it is psychological, and some of it is even genetic. Watching DiCaprio as Carroll deal with a day-to-day life that included sexual advances from his basketball coach, beatings from teachers (at an all-boys Catholic school, so it’s not just a teacher, but a spiritual leader), watching his mom struggle to be a single parent and keep the lights on, and coming to terms with the fact that one of his best friends is dying of cancer adds that needed perspective. He continues to turn to drugs, not his given talents with a basketball or his gift with words, because he both wants to escape his reality and become someone these people don’t recognize and in turn no longer want any part of.

Watching my brother struggle with alcoholism and one of my sisters struggle with drug addiction and knowing some of the demons in their lives that led them down those paths, I found myself empathetic to what Carroll was going through and sometimes maddeningly frustrated at the people around him. Well, the ones who genuinely loved him. So much early on is just people ignoring the signs of what’s already there and beginning to take root. There are so many things you can see clearly in hindsight; things you hate yourself for missing once everything’s gone too far.

Ryan, with his future step-daughter, enjoying a day at the pool.

Watching his mother, played by Lorraine Bracco, lose her composure more and more the farther he gets into the addiction, at times trying to lovingly coax him back, in others berating him…it’s always weird seeing those things mirrored back to me. There are always things you say when they are no longer someone you recognize, things that you can’t ever take back, and I think those are the things you regret the most when the people you love don’t recover.

Ultimately, it’s the death of one of his best friends, Bobby (played by a far-too-old-to-be-here Michael Imperioli), that sets Jim full on into his addictions. A death to cancer no less, something Ryan and I both battled, and something we watched take too many family members and friends of our own. This is where I most related to Jim Carrol, at least the one in the film.

It’s so incredibly hard to lose anyone you care about, to let go and find a way to carry on, even if it’s in a slightly different manner. But we see people do it, and if you’re around long enough you follow suit. You lose someone and one day you realize you’re still going. It’s the same but different.

When you lose the only person you feel understands you though, knows you, the person you called to bullshit with about everything, the person you called to commiserate and celebrate with, who went through all the same nonsense with you, who you fought with, fought for and fought against…it’s an incalculable grief. You see people going about their life days, weeks, months, or now even years later and you just want to grab them and shake them until they understand that nothing is the same, will ever be the same, and we should acknowledge that in almost every breath we take. To tell them it’s no okay, stop pretending it is. And if you’re lucky you gain composure and perspective and find ways to not do those things.

My attempt at painting a wave.

Shortly after Ryan passed away I tried my hand at painting a wave on the ocean. I couldn’t stop thinking about this beautiful painting I’d seen online and how someone had told me that the grief comes in waves, and how right they were. So I wanted to visualize that, to hang it up so I could see it and remember that it’s a wave and it will pass. But, as I was painting I realized that it isn’t just that grief is a wave. It’s so much more than that. Dealing with grief is standing in the ocean and facing the beach, miles out to sea, and walking ever so slightly towards the shoreline, knowing that the wave will come, knowing it will move you, sometimes forward and sometimes backward, or even just upending you and leaving you in the same place, but never knowing how big or small that wave might be.

Maybe those waves even out over time, become these things that simply push you ever so slightly to remind you that you’re still standing in the ocean. At least, I hope that they do. For now, though, coming up on two years of living without my brother, I still can’t tell you anything concrete, and those big ones still come. Those ones that drag you under, turn you upside down, and make you wonder if you’ll ever get to see the sun or moon or stars again. They still come. And somehow I am still able to find the sky, get to my feet and start making my way back to the shore.

Moving Pictures will return in two weeks…

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