Massillon Ohio: where they live, breathe, and eat football.
By now, stories surrounding small town American and their devotion to local sports teams are commonplace. Rallies, raffles, exotic rituals, and shrines have all been employed to celebrate potential victory and ward off the evil spirit of loss. But when it comes to commitment to the cause, no one can compete with Massillon, Ohio, home to the powerhouse Massillon High School Tigers. As one of the founding programs in high school athletics, their 108-year tradition is based in a single, clear objective: football as a total way of life. The pulse of the community and its fortunes can be measured in the success or failure of the football team. In order to help guarantee success, the town has developed a gridiron machine that churns out an inordinately large number of skilled physical specimens each year. It's almost an inherent part of the town's very fabric. As illustrated in Kenneth Cochran's insightful documentary Go Tigers!, Massillon, Ohio may be the single most football obsessed community in the universe. But is this really something to celebrate?
Facts of the Case
For over a century, one name has been synonymous with football, both as its "birthplace" and as a high school sports titan: Massillon, Ohio. The premiere interscholastic sports program in the USA, the Massillon High School Tigers have a longstanding, proud tradition in this small town of just over 34,000 residents. Everyone seems to have a connection to the team, either as a booster, a parent of a student, a player, or a fan. As the 1999 season begins, there are several issues pressing on the team and its performance. Allegations of illegal recruiting landed the team and school in court. Massillon is facing a budget crunch, and without the passage of an already twice-defeated property tax levy, there will be massive staff and extracurricular cuts. And last year's team could only muster a less than impressive 4-6 record.
We follow the team's three co-captains: Ellery Moore, a poor African American linebacker with a checkered past that is clearly now behind him; Dave Irwin, the star quarterback whose bright athletic future overshadows his less than spectacular high school educational career; and Danny Studer, a sensitive artist whose place on the Massillon team is part of a legacy of competition that finds his father, an alumnus and ex-player, back coaching. As the team competes week after week in preparation for the big McKinley (a traditional and hated rival) game, their record and the chances of the tax levy passing become irrevocably tied together. The team takes the field for the big, final showdown in Canton, Ohio (just days before the vote), the life, the love, and the legacy of Massillon and its football rides on the outcome.
Sometimes destiny allows us the luxury of being in the right place at the right time. During the 1999 Massillon High School football season, a lot more was riding on the outcome of the team's performance than just a chance at a state championship. Filmmaker Kenneth Carlson was fortunate enough to capture this tumultuous and crucial season for posterity in his documentary Go Tigers!. Cast through the lens of reality, this story of one town and school's battle with tradition, taxes, and expectations unravels the standard melodramatic formulas placed in sports movies, and show us that there can be times in the real world when there truly is an all-important, life or death game. In this case, the loss to rival McKinley could mean the defeat of a much-needed tax levy proposal. And without the extra money, the state of Ohio will step in and gut the schools, starting with teachers and ending with extracurriculars, including the beloved Massillon Tigers. The town's belief in itself and its hopes are so linked to the fortunes of the football program that an undefeated season, or a critical loss, could radically alter the fate of the community.
At first, the film feels like a borderline Waiting For Guffman, Gates of Heaven style satire, one that wants to heighten the reality of life in this town as they live out their ridiculous, grandiose obsessions. In the first few scenes, we see members of the Massillon High School Football Boosters Club visiting hospital maternity wards, presenting tiny commemorative footballs to the newborn boys and their parents. And instead of being creeped out or alarmed, these adults are ecstatic at the notion of their eight-hour-old being "scouted" as the next star cornerback or wide receiver. Then we take a trip to the local mortician, where he proudly extols the virtues of the customized Obie casket (Obie being the team's tiger mascot), which includes a removable memorial plaque for the family to frame. As we move closer to the all-important rival game, we see how the town rallies around the program, turning the week before into a celebration of football, the players, and the team. The increasing levels of insanity that inhabit the people of this town (advertising their team member children on their houses and cars like near religious idols) speaks volumes, and does elicit a giggle or two. But in reality, Go Tigers! is not meant to undermine the town and its traditions. There is more to it than that.
This is primarily a feel-good film about Middle American values and hometown heroes. Massillon football tradition is near infinite, and steeped in a poetic and larger than life mythology. The notion of a second consecutive losing season threatens to trash that legacy. The town administrators feel another bad season will doom a town already slipping economically. Many of the coaches are returning Massillon alumni, filled with dreams of reawakening the program and recapturing past glories. One has a son, a star linebacker on the squad, and you can feel the unspoken threats and admonitions that flow between them as they interact on and off the field. And then there are the players, like Ellery Moore, an underprivileged ex-juvenile offender who's turned his life around thanks to the game of football and the program at Massillon. His goal is simple: to have a great year and beat the rival McKinley. The pieces are in place for this to be a game-by-game battle for the heart and soul of the program, the school, and the town. But credit again goes to director Carlson for modulating the madness and mayhem with sensitivity. He lets the personal stories and the circumstances create suspense and compassion. Nothing here is manufactured or forced.
Go Tigers! however, fails to transcend its basic story and therefore misses a chance at being an extraordinary documentary. It is still an excellent bit of work, but it sets up a few ideas awkwardly. First, it really presents no viable opposition to the craziness of the town. We learn that this HIGH SCHOOL has a 20,000-seat stadium with expensive turf, press and luxury boxes, and concession stands, state of the art training and practice facilities, a "blank check" style sports budget, and more assistant coaches than art teachers. The few students who are interviewed about the "jock" hierarchy in the school are given perfunctory screen time to post their grievance, but no in-depth exposure. The townsfolk who oppose the massive football buildup and the levy are scuttled across the narrative like troublemakers from a bar fight. There is very little responsibility doled out by the filmmakers, no attempt to ask the school why a football program that generates over $100,000 in revenue every year is still a drain on funds. The teachers who question the "educational" opportunities these players are experiencing seem resigned to merrily tow the party line. Even the issue of holding back students in junior high for one more year of football playing eligibility is glossed over in favor of more shots of Middle America celebrating its sports sons.
And that's a shame, because Carlson really wants us to see this as the player's story. He wants us to see how this overriding reality of football as religion and right of passage affects their lives, internally. But we learn very little about the hopes and dreams these kids have. In many ways, they come across like overly privileged town royalty whose status would immediately disintegrate if they weren't on the team. They are perked and pampered as a product of the town's assembly line fixation with the creation of a continuously productive football team. There is a real wasted opportunity here, one that could have capitalized on the pressure these kids feel. Instead, it's more musical montages and additional layers of town politics and parental complications. Sure, the final game is handled with incredible skill and dexterity, turning it into a real edge of your seat, transfixing bit of film work. But by failing to dig a little deeper into the divisions within the town, and within the players themselves, Go Tigers! misses the chance at being one of the truly enlightening pieces of reality cinema. As it stands, it's a celebration of Massillon and its occasionally warped ideals and passion for the game of football.
Similar to other titles offered by Docurama, this is one loaded DVD package. They do a wonderful job with the video, the sound, and the veritable wealth of extras. Go Tigers! was created on and with several different mediums: digital and video camera, film and newsreel footage. It all looks excellent in the crisp and vibrant widescreen transfer. While not anamorphic, it's still impressive. A Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is present, and it too adds immensely to the disc. There is a true sense of presence in the mix, and you get the feeling several times during the movie of being in and at the games being played. It's also amazing that, since most of the recording is done either with handheld booms or body mics, we get very little distortion or high-end modulation. Docurama has also gone out of its way to provide wonderful extras like background and historical facts, old archival material, about 30 minutes of deleted scenes, and interviews. Actually, some of this material should have been in the film. The "where are they now" updates add the necessary punch to the arguments that Massillon is merely a football mill, plain and simple. Several of the deleted scenes add even more meat to the crazy/obsessive fire, and an interview with former star of the NFL Cleveland Browns, Chris Spielman, shows that you can take the player out of Massillon, but the town's ideals stay firmly ingrained many years later. The overall DVD package completes the portrait of the entire community that Go Tigers!, the film, only hints at.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are two gaps in the Massillon story, ones that the film Go Tigers! and the DVD itself fails to address. The first is WHY Massillon, why is this town considered the birthplace of football. There is simply not enough background material presented in the film to justify what is going on. Maybe people with a knowledge and appreciation for the sport understand Massillon's place in its founding, but the average person will find themself cast into the middle of a historic gridiron melodrama without knowing all the reasons and context. Second, there should have been a commentary track on this DVD. Perhaps then, director Kenneth Carlson could address some of the obvious issues raised in his film, issues like; why does he cow tow to Massillon so often? Why is there no time spent on truly compelling dissenting voices? How much pressure was he under to cover up the obvious violations of the law (like underage drinking and driving) that seems to be part of the Friday night ritual for the team? And most importantly, why was negative information glossed over? Sure, some of these items may not have maintained the near sainted status of the Massillon tradition, but they would have balanced the presentation. In many ways, this propaganda piece (i.e. that "winning" football cures all ills) seems trite, and the town of Massillon petty. If the school is in trouble, perhaps they should funnel some of the outrageous football money floating around back into it. But those words are never uttered in this celebration of narrow-minded hero worship.
In many ways, whatever victories the team and community reap at the end of Go Tigers!, there is a sense of inevitable production line sameness to the way the "where are they now" bonus sequence finishes the story. Seems that very few "stars" go on to bigger and better things in life, post-Massillon. Dreams of a pro career and escape from small town traditions seem hopeless. No matter what Massillon thinks about its historical or athletic importance, the fact that, from cradle to grave, they turn out more average adults than all-star Pro Bowlers begs a lot of the issues left woefully un-addressed here. And this undermines the potential of Go Tigers! as a great documentary, turning it into one that is only above average. Where Hoop Dreams showed a system out of control and its immediate and long term effects, this movie spends a little too much time on the rah-rah and the drama, and not enough on the blatant unrealities of this town. These are people trapped and locked into their own little world, their wonderland of perpetual sport. Massillon is a town where 11 or 12 fall Friday nights a year are all that's important. The future, unfortunately, is never really considered. And as Go Tigers! shows, probably doesn't matter all that much. Everything will continue just like it has for 106 years.
Go Tigers! is placed on six months probation for failing to be in-depth enough to explore and present all sides of its subject matter. However, after that sentence has been served, its record will be quashed and sealed, as this documentary is indeed a good, entertaining film.
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