April is National Poetry Month, and while I’ve procrastinated commemorating it until the very end, Wendell at Dell on Movies has been celebrating poetry all month via his Poetry in the Movies Blogathon. Throughout April, Wendell asked fellow bloggers to “post a review of a movie that either has a poet as a major character, is inspired by/based on a poem, or uses poetry as an important part of the film.”
Below is my contribution, which highlights the raw teenage angst film, The Basketball Diaries. I hope you enjoy my thoughts on the film, and the flawless lead performance that anchors it. Props to Wendell for cooking up such a cool idea!
Shit, it’s been hard, man. All I’ve been doing is reading these diaries and wondering how the hell I’m still alive, and even if I care. Suffice to say that I’m finished with the asshole bandits of shower-room rape, and suffice to say that those swine guards won’t draw blood from my ankles again. Suffice to say that I’ve been just thinking about dumb stuff like what a nice concept it is to have a godmother and a godfather, wondering who my godparents might be. My mom won’t visit me here, so I guess I’ll just have to wait till I get home to ask.
This is how Jim Carroll writes poetry. Direct, linear, truthful – not much room for lavish verbal flourishes or obtuse literary devices. Given everything Carroll had going on in his life, one might not fault his basic style of poetic writing. He told it straight and let the words speak for themselves, hyperbolic style be damned.
As a teenager, Carroll had three loves in his life: basketball, poetry, and heroin. By the time the third love was introduced, it quickly consumed the first, but poetry more or less remained a constant. Throughout his life struggles – theft, prostitution, habitual drug use, sexual exploration, to name a few – Carroll made time to scribble in notebooks. Heroin and cocaine occasionally trumped his desire to write, but writing was something Carroll had to do as a means of making sense of his so-called life.
You’re growing up. And rain sort of remains on the branches of a tree that will someday rule the Earth. And it’s good that there is rain. It clears the month of your sorry rainbow expressions, and it clears the streets of the silent armies... so we can dance.
All of this is realized truthfully and painfully in Scott Kalvert’s film, The Basketball Diaries. The film was released in 1995, directly after What’s Eating Gilbert Grape earned Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar nomination, and directly before Titanic made him the most famous person in the world. As Jim Carroll, DiCaprio gives one of the best performances of his career. In addition to perfectly, hauntingly capturing the horror of heroin addiction, DiCaprio is expert at portraying a teenager stuck in the limitless hell of adolescence. There isn’t a false step to be found in his performance (including his impressive basketball skills) – the man simply has game, in every aspect of the role.
The film is narrated by Carroll’s own poetry, which Roger Ebert described as, “puerile romanticism, painfully sincere, viewing life as tragic because the author is not happy.” And even though Ebert ultimately wrote a dissenting review of the film (as the majority of critics did upon the movie’s release), I think Ebert describes Carroll’s words well. It’s teenage poetry written by a teenager stuck in the nightmare of his own mind.
First, it’s a Saturday night thing when you feel cool like a gangster or a rockstar – just something to kill the boredom, you know? They call it a chippie, a small habit. It feels so good, you start doing it on Tuesdays... then Thursdays... then it’s got you. Every wise ass punk on the block says it won’t happen to them, but it does.
Simply put, The Basketball Diaries is one of the best films I’ve ever seen that implores a literal poetic narrative. Like Carroll’s own words, Kalvert’s film is unflinching and raw. And although the movie ends on a somewhat optimistic note, fans of Carroll’s work know that the man’s struggles carried over long into adulthood. I’d love to see what DiCaprio would do with that material today.