Growing up in the projects of Coney Island, Sebastian Telfair was groomed to be a basketball star in the way that dauphins were groomed to be kings. His older brother, Jamel Thomas, was a top player at Providence College. His cousin Stephon Marbury made it all the way to the NBA. Once it became clear that Telfair himself was a prodigiously talented point guard, there was no stopping the forces of dynasty-making: He’d reach the top or die trying.
Through the Fire, the first big-screen project by Jonathan Hock, producer of ESPN’s Streetball: The AND1 Mix Tape Tour, follows Telfair in his final year at Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School, where he’s poised to lead his team to an unprecedented third straight city championship and become the all-time top scorer in New York’s Public Schools Athletic League. Recruiters are stalking him at every game, Sports Illustrated has put him on its cover, and though University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino has offered him a place on next year’s squad, word has it that Telfair may end up skipping college and heading straight for the pros, just like LeBron James before him.
But this is, after all, a basketball doc, and with the NBA draft fast approaching, Telfair’s aura of destiny begins to dim. Critics say he’s not large enough for the big time or that he doesn’t put enough points on the board. His jump shots are starting to miss, his confidence is ebbing, and it’s no longer clear if he’ll make it to the NBA or, like his brother, fade into painful obscurity. How painful? At the time of filming, Thomas is living out that most ignominious of pro-ball banishments: playing overseas, in his case for Greece’s Apollon Patras.
Telfair is still something in the thick of competition, though, and so is Through the Fire. Hock trains his cameras right under the baskets, giving us not only an impressive selection of the moves for which Telfair is justly celebrated, but also every bead of flying sweat and all the profanities that TV leaves out. We feel what it’s like to be on that floor, waging war. And Hock’s familiarity with the proving grounds of New York renders him an invaluable guide to the basketball nurseries that spawn these players.
Where Hock disappoints is in trying to squeeze Telfair’s story into the classic dramatic arc of underprivileged kid chasing improbable dream. None of his “characters” quite fill their appointed roles. Thomas, for instance, though punctually trotted out as one of the losers in fame’s lottery, is still a dazzling athlete—and the most mature individual on view. More important, Telfair, far from being the green young hopeful that archetype would demand, is a cunning media manipulator. Whether recycling sports platitudes for interviewers, holding forth at press conferences, or pressing flesh with celebrity rappers and corporate sponsors, he accepts every attention that comes his way with a staggering poise. He understands as well as anybody that he’s a commodity in a terrifying business.
Hock’s film understands that, too, at least some of the time. One observer likens Telfair to Tiger Woods: “Clean. Happy. Smiling all the time. Nice teeth.” And in a moment of barely encoded racism, an Adidas executive lauds him for his “instant street credibility.” What we never get is a rigorous accounting of the Faustian exchanges a young star athlete has to make on the way to an NBA contract. Who, for instance, bought Telfair the car he’s driving at the beginning of the movie? Where are the agents and publicists who brokered his SI cover and his multimillion-dollar shoe contract? And where will any of them be in the event that he fails?
Through the Fire is being anointed as a successor to Hoop Dreams, but Steve James’ 1994 classic had the capacity to imagine a world of achievement outside sports—one of its most memorable moments came when Arthur Agee’s mother passed a professional exam. The only life that Hock offers is filtered through the worldview of, well, ESPN—and not just because the director’s regular employer owns the movie’s television and theatrical rights. No one in front of or behind the camera seems able to imagine a better outcome for a young black man from the projects than realizing those dreams of a Bentley and a Rolex and a shoe with his own name on it.
“This is what we want to do for the rest of our lives—play basketball,” Telfair announces early on. It’s understandable that a single-minded athlete of great talent could be unable to imagine doing anything else. But why can’t Jonathan Hock?
For sheer lack of imagination, though, nothing quite holds a candle to titling a film about gay sex in the ’70s Gay Sex in the 70s. Drop in the name of an author or the title of a novel and it sounds like a paper submitted to the Modern Language Association. In the spirit of academic transparency, then, I must point out that the sex chronicled in Joseph Lovett’s documentary: (1) confines itself strictly to Manhattan; (2) actually begins in 1969, with the aftermath of the Stonewall riots; and (3) carries all the way to 1981, when the explosion of AIDS transformed the way gay men pleasure each other.
Until then, to hear Lovett’s interview subjects tell it, the sex was not just good but also epic, whether it was happening in the bushes of Central Park, in the St. Marks Baths, in the Paradise Garage, or in the backs of trucks. “You didn’t care about the danger, the smell, the raunchiness,” recalls one. “You cared about meeting someone and having sex.”
Though some of the men, who include such scenesters as Studio 54 architect Scott Bromley, erotic photographer Tom Bianchi, and playwright Larry Kramer, now insist they were searching for Mr. Right all along, it’s clear they were most in love with freedom. Or at least with the chance to live in what one commentator calls “the most liberal period the Western world has ever seen since Rome.” Looking back from today’s medically and politically circumscribed times, how could they not remain a little sentimental about their temps perdu—and a little dazed at having survived it? Carrying themselves less like Casanova than like Ishmael, they speak as men thrust mysteriously from a great wreckage. Even Kramer, the king of rant, is reduced to hushed wonder.
Kramer, of course, has already explored this era in his own work. So, for that matter, have Randy Shilts, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, Allan Gurganus, Felice Picano, and many others, at great length and depth. Which makes Gay Sex in the 70s a largely redundant work, in addition to being a curious and unsatisfying one. Indifferently lit and repetitively structured, it’s little more than a home movie for the Fire Island crowd.
The only thing Lovett really adds to the post-Stonewall mythography is to remind us how attractive men’s bodies actually were in the ’70s, before the plague. The sleek cats on display here weren’t downing Muscle Milk or majoring in afternoon gym, but in their fantastically tight jeans, they had the sheen of true sensualists. Whatever warning we might be tempted to yell at them as they pass expires in our throats. Who are we to spoil their party with history? CP