The Cardboard God of Hellfire, our man Josh Wilker, has a new book out. I recently had a chance to ask him a few questions about it.
Bronx Banter: How did this project come about?
Josh Wilker: I guess the series editor, Sean Howe, is a fan of my blog. He contacted me to see if I had any interest in working on something for the series. I wrote him back an email listing several of my favorite movies, including “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.” Sean liked the idea of me writing about Breaking Training rather than any others on the list, and I was into it, too. (I also would have gotten excited about writing about “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” but it’s probably better for my mental health that I focused for a long while on Tanner and Kelly and Ogilvie rather than Warren Oates and a severed head.)
BB: How long is the book–it’s really a long essay, right?
JW: Yeah, it’s not that long, maybe a little over a hundred pages. I just checked the Word doc I sent the editor—it’s about 30,000. It’s got chapters though, which is kind of book-like. I think the idea was for the books in the series to be similar to those in the 33 1/3 books on albums.
BB: I love that this is a pocket paperback. When I got it the first thing I did was see if it fit in my back pocket. There is something so comforting about that.
JW: Right, all books should be that way. Nothing better than heading out the door and not having to carry anything and still have something to read on the train.
BB: What was the first baseball movie you saw as a kid?
JW: “Breaking Training” was probably the first. I’d read a lot of baseball books by the time I saw that movie, but I don’t think I saw any other movies. I guess the first time I saw any sort of fictional baseball on the screen was when Bugs Bunny took on the Balboniesque sluggers on the Gashouse Gorillas.
BB: Why did you chose it over the original “Bad News Bears”?
JW: Probably because I suck. There are lots of other reasons, too, among them that the second movie had a much stronger personal connection to me, and felt more like my own flawed little love rather than a generally acknowledged classic, and also that the second movie seemed to me to have much more potential as a jumping off point to talk about a lot of facets of American culture that fascinate and/or nauseate me, such as the central American myth of the road narrative, the changing ways in which children are raised in America, the malignancy of sequels, the “man alone” myth, etc. But above all that, if I’m being truthful, I don’t see myself as worthy of tackling something canonical. I’m too flawed to be some learned authority shedding light on “Citizen Kane” or “The Godfather.” I relate to the lesser sequel, even love it, and wanted to sing its praises. Maybe it’s kind of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree kind of thing.
BB: When did you see the original?
JW: Unlike my first viewing of “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training,” which I remember vividly, I don’t remember when or where I saw “The Bad News Bears.” In line with a life that has often felt like an aftermath, like I arrive everywhere just after the things that mattered occurred, I saw the sequel first, and it was years before I saw the original. I probably saw it in my twenties, during which I spent a lot of time catching up on all the classic movies from the 1970s. If I were a couple years older, I probably would have seen it in the theater when it came out, and I’d surely have a different relationship to the two films.
BB: What did you think of “The Bad News Bears” when you finally saw it?
JW: It’s a fantastic movie, one of the last great films of the gritty late 1960s to mid-1970s golden age. I don’t recall my first time watching it, as I’ve said, but I’ve watched it many times since then—as with Breaking Training, I own the DVD. Matthau is of course brilliant, and I also like the occasional long reaction shots some of the Bears get to have, those long wordless shots that you don’t see anymore in movies (and which were gone even by the time of the sequel two years later). Jimmy Feldman gets one of these, as does Rudi Stein, in both cases showing a heart-wrenching human kid reaction to Buttermaker getting caught up in a win at all costs mentality. Both of these characters are marginal, so the fact that they each get to have one of these moments lends a sense to the movie that everyone is worth something.
BB: Where did you see “Breaking Training?”
JW: I saw it at the Playhouse Theater in Randolph, Vermont. In piecing together my personal experience of the summer of 1977, I came to the conclusion that my brother and I would have seen the movie during our yearly two-week summer visit to see our dad in Manhattan, but we lost a couple of movie-going days due to the blackout. It was god to see it back home, because I saw it in a theater packed with all the kids I played little league with, which could not have been a more receptive audience. It’s the most alive, enthusiastic movie audience I’ve ever been a part of.