Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Quintessential Minnesota Film: The Mighty Ducks

This is part of a series I worked on at one point combining my geography major with my film writing to discuss the quintessential film for each state. 

The Quintessential Minnesota Film: The Mighty Ducks

My Minnesota Credentials:
I spent a summer studying in Minneapolis and visited my sister multiple times when she lived in St Louis Park for 6 years. This is the same Minneapolis suburb that the Coen brothers are from and my sister's synagogue (where my niece was christened) happened to be the shooting location of "A Serious Man". My time in Minnesota was spent as a gangly 20-year-old trying to get a new start halfway around the country (my hope was to finish college there) and as such I became acutely aware of the differences between myself as an East Coaster and the nuances of the "Minnesota nice" mentality. While I was never able to convince my parents to pay the out-of-state tuition to restart my life in Minnesota, I will always have an appreciation for the state where I learned to roller blade, where I learned what it means to be be resourceful in Wintertime, where I rode a rollercoaster indoors, where the evil eye of Walmart is replaced by the mildly conspicuous conglomerate of Target, and where no one gave me weird looks for cross-country skiing.

My Pick:
The films of Joel and Ethan Coen have a strong sense of place as evidenced by their portrayals of Mississippi ("O Brother Where Art Thou"), Hollywood ("Intolerable Cruelty"), a quasi-modern day Louisiana ("The Lady Killers"), Texas ("No Country for Old Men") and Washington DC ("Burn After Reading"). They are perhaps best known for their portrayal of their home state of Minnesota in 1996's "Fargo."

The Oscar-winning film veers towards the darker end of the Coens' dark comedies with graphic images of murder juxtaposed by the offbeat and cheery nature of the characters involved in the case. Since premiering, it has been claimed by many in the state as a quintessentially Minnesotan work of art. When Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura got into a public feud with another state cultural institution, Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion", in 1999, he offered up "Fargo" as a better example of Minnesota humor than Keillor who he described as "high-brow and boring."

In "Fargo", there's much to appreciate in the spot-on accents and the portrayal of the bitter cold of Winter. It truly is a kind of cold that demoralizes the population and one gets the sense that these people are committing murders because they have nothing better to do. That's where "Fargo" goes wrong: The portrayal of Minnesota as a bleak and dull winter land is inaccurate.

Minnesotans are among the healthiest, happiest and most civically active people (they actually rank #1 in voter turnout) in the nation. Minneapolis as a breeding ground for backwater hicks also seems incongruous with the version of Minneapolis I've experienced as one of the most urban and fast-moving cities I've ever lived in.

In light of these virtues, what could better representative Minnesota than a sports film about Minnesota's most beloved sport? "The Mighty Ducks" is not the only film ever made about hockey but it might as well have been if you were growing up in the early 90s. For a kid like me, few things would have made me (a kid who always got assigned right field in Little League) feel more fulfilled than bonding to my peers on a diamond or ice rink as a valuable member of the team. I didn't find my athletic niche until 10th grade but in the interim, the movies of the 90's seemed pretty hell-bent on selling me fantasies I could live vicariously through. There was a a high school outcast who suddenly becomes eligible for the Chicago Cubs on a freak accident ("Rookie of the Year"), a kid who unites his broken home through enlisting heavenly aide to help his beloved Angels ("Angels in the Outfield") a boy who becomes a hero on the Iditarod because he's good to his dog ("Iron Will"), and most beloved of all, that kid from Notre Dame who just wanted to play ("Rudy").

Labatt Blue US Pond Hockey Championships
In "The Mighty Ducks," Emilio Estevez's Gordon Bombay, is a disgraced ex-hockey player ordered by the court (see the civic pride tie-in) to coach a youth hockey team. This is a state in which nearly every Minneapolis suburb (that I saw) has its own community center with a hockey rink so it's more than fair to say that many a Minnesotan defined themselves as a budding hockey star before moving onto adulthood.

A lawyer on the go with only a tinge of Minnesotan drawl in his speech, Bombay seems like the archetypal Twin Cities urbanite but he's contrasted with his mentor Hans (Joss Andros) who is an ambiguous Upper Midwestern version of Yoda or Mr. Miyagi if green alien or stereotypical Japanese was replaced with stereotypical Scandinavian.

It's also worth noting that in the land of 10,000 lakes, ice skating isn't just done in the ice skating rinks but on frozen lakes as well. Minneapolis has hosted the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships annually since 2007. It's an ubiquitous part of state culture and Bombay first meets his time as they're playing on a pond. It also must have made many a Minnesotan must have swooned when the film's primary romantic spark occurs as as Bombay is stroking his love interest's hair as the St. Paul's ice carnival is featured in the background.

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