during day four we are going to take a look at the nature of competition, with all its ephemeral glories and inevitable broken hearts. we start in france with chris hegedus and d.a. pennebaker's kings of pastry (2009).
the setting is the meilleurs ouvriers de france competition. this is the pinnacle of the pastry world. every four years the greatest pastry chefs in the world convene here to compete for the coveted blue, white and red collar and to determine who is france's greatest craftsman. we pick up with a number of the competitors, primarily jacquy pfeiffer, returning to france from his adopted home of chicago, regis lazard, who suffered misfortune previously in the competition, and philippe rigollot, who has basically trained for this his entire life, as he grew up in his mother's bakery. the format of the documentary itself isn't much more than the most elegant kitchen-based reality show you have ever seen. fortunately, the drama is built in to something like this. it's impossible for it not to be riveting knowing how much effort and dedication went into the preparations and how crucial this event is in all of their lives. but you really need to see these creations, astounding and completely edible. they can tell you better than i can about what's beautiful about this movie. the level of artistry on display here is simply unbelievable.
there is a certain specific joy in watching someone who is the best in the world at what they do. hegedus and pennebaker's unprecedented access to this competition offers a brief glimpse of what is exalted in us when we give everything in pursuit of our art.
for some, though, their competition is a very practical matter. that is the crux of steve james' hoop dreams (1994).
the film follows the divergent fortunes of two kids from chicago, arthur agee and william gates, as they chase their dream of playing basketball in the nba. what started out being a thirty minute short ended up being nearly three hours long, culled from almost six years' worth of footage. i am glad they spent the time because there is no way you could have adequately compressed a story this valuable and multifaceted into half an hour. it encompasses issues of class and race, of potential riches and ruin and of exploitation and and transcendence. so much is riding on these kids and the sacrifices that they, and everyone around them, make that it is, in a manner of speaking, a matter of life and death. if they hit this lottery, it means at least a shot at a way out of crippling poverty and a piece of the american dream that is utterly foreign to them. if they don't make it, it's just more of a never-ending cycle of violence and degradation in their own community and, possibly worst of all, the slow death of a lifetime of deadend jobs with all the time in the world to think about what might have been. as we watch these kids grow up, and watch their stock rise and fall over and again, we watch an ever-expanding web of boosters, coaches, recruiters and relatives all trying to get a piece of these youngsters. it is appalling and terrifying to see just how much pressure these kids have to bear. when you think that these two stories are representative of hundreds, maybe thousands, of kids like them, who are now being approached as early as elementary school, it boggles the mind. you can only hope that they can keep their heads, avoid injury and make it out of high school relatively unscathed. it's a tall order, though, as the school systems in their neighborhoods aren't exactly equipping them to make the kind of decisions they're faced with and the school systems that can advance their careers only seem to see them as commodities. it really is an epic story. much like the first film, it is also about the relentless pursuit of a dream. it's just a very different type of food these kids are trying to put on the table.
we end the day with a look at one of the greatest competitors in the history of baseball in sam wood's the pride of the yankees (1942).
it's lou gehrig's story, from his humble beginnings right up to his farewell speech that makes me cry every damn time i hear it, tracing his path from rambunctious son of hard-working immigrants to his golden years with the yankees, cut so tragically short by fatal neuromuscular disease. it is almost impossible for me to be objective about this movie. i love baseball and i love lou gehrig. there is so much about him that i admire - he never took a day off, he let his work speak for him, he wasn't arrogant, he was devoted to his wife and mother and he was a gentleman, on and off the diamond. yes, he was just a man and he has been much-mythologized, but he was the closest thing to the living embodiment of hard work and fair play that i think we ever saw on such a grand stage. gary cooper does right by him here, though the scenes where he's playing a college-aged gehrig are stretching it a bit. there is good, playful chemistry between him and teresa wright as his wife, eleanor. walter brennan is downright excellent, playing against type here and babe ruth even shows up playing himself. it is an essential slice of twentieth century americana. yes, it is sentimental. it was released a year after gehrig died and they weren't going to do anything to sully his memory. if i didn't know better, i would go so far as to say it was sanitized but, by every account i have ever heard, he was just that good of a guy. and this is that good of a movie, once it gets going. it manages to avoid most of the maudlin pitfalls of melodrama and even handles things like gehrig's reunion with the boy he inspired to walk again with a surprising amount of restraint. it is a very fitting monument to one of the game's all-time greats and the boy scout in me recommends you put it in your queue right now.
tomorrow finds us shifting our focus from humans to the animal kingdom.
what are the chances that tomorrow also ends with a tearful farewell?