Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Posted By on Wed, Jul 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM

At the beginning of this documentary, a group from the Professional Bowlers Association discusses why they’d like to reinvigorate their beleaguered yet beloved league. As they pontificate on pro bowling’s heyday, there’s a flashback montage of the sport’s proudest moments. That same montage also features the most spectacular array of mullets and man perms imaginable, as well as a veritable parade of beer guts and love handles. Champions, they may be, but athletes and fashionistas they are not.

Documentarian Christopher Browne follows the efforts of a dedicated few to recapture a little of professional bowling’s former luster. Historically a mainstay of ABC’s Saturday afternoons, the sport disappeared from TV in 1997. It’s back, more or less, with a small presence on ESPN. Most of us probably weren’t even aware that pro bowling went off the air, let alone that the 2003 PBA finals took place at metro Detroit’s own Taylor Lanes. (That event, by the way, is the setting for the film’s climax.)

We’re introduced to a group of pro bowlers — two of its finest, one up-and-comer, and one has-been — during the 2003 season. At that point, the league’s new owners, Microsoft millionaires, had just sunk $5 million into the ailing sport and put former Nike bigwigs at the helm.

The ex-sneaker-peddlers, led by Steve Miller, take a thoroughly modern tack at revival, launching a full-blown media and marketing blitz. Miller even admits that he doesn’t care about the bowlers; his top priorities are the TV audience and the sponsors. The players, he says, will get in line.

First up is Pete Weber, whose trademark post-strike celebration includes a two-handed gesture that he calls the “crotch chop.” Son of mild-mannered bowling great Dick Weber, Pete’s the league’s troublemaker, and he talks enough trash to have his own landfill. His shenanigans make for marketing gold.

Weber’s foil and arch nemesis is Walter Ray “Dead-eye” Williams Jr. A kindler, gentler bowler, Walter Ray cringes at his bowling brethren’s lane-side antics, even though the hoopla and hype could bring him bigger paychecks and keep his sport afloat.

The movie serves not only as an interesting portrait of the men and women who’ve dedicated their lives to bowling, but it also serves as a metaphor for the rabid commercialization of all pro sports in this country. After all, our stadiums are plastered with ads on every available inch of space, and are named not for champion athletes but for Fortune 500 companies. Then you have these lowly pro bowlers, never having been the world’s sexiest athletes, trying to court an 18- to 35-year-old male demographic. Not surprisingly, the XXX-TREME sports fans of today won’t tolerate anything remotely dull.

As passionate as these players are, it’s often hard to feel their love when, frankly, it’s just not that interesting to watch people bowl — even someone who’s mastered the “crotch chop.”

Browne’s best material comes from the personal lives of the bowling vets, who, despite their massive collections of championship trophies, still come off as real people trying to make a living doing what they love.

 

Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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