Download: Reframe: Vision Quest
The recent death of Pele, the greatest footballer ever, brought to my mind a teen drama from 1985 starring Matthew Modine called Vision Quest. At first blush, that may seem like an odd connection to make, but I’ll get to that later.
First, I’d like to talk about Vision Quest as a movie. Much like All The Right Moves starring Tom Cruise, Vision Quest is a largely forgotten coming of age film about a high school athlete going into his senior year and hoping his athletic prowess will allow him to escape the dead end town where he resides.
I suppose that doesn’t sound very sexy (but then I haven’t gotten to Linda Fiorentino yet). I think one of the deficits the films share is the teen movies of lasting memory from the “me decade” are the ribald sex comedies like Risky Business, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and (god forbid), Porky’s. Otherwise you’re left with all of the John Hughes films, which to a degree The Breakfast Club was a bit of an outlier. Still, even that teen gem that was willing to go to more realistic places (again to a degree), put comedy first.
Neither Vision Quest nor All The Right Moves track in comedy. Both films are working class dramas that just happen to be centered around a high school student in a make or break senior year. Will they get that scholarship, or will they end up working as a mechanic or a factory worker—an outcome neither is interested in.
Of the two films, Vision Quest is the strongest. It’s better directed by the consummate professional Harold Becker, and Matthew Modine’s sweet peculiarities make his character, Louden Swain, just a bit more compelling than Cruise’s strong, but very straightforward, work in All The Right Moves.
Unlike Cruise’s character in All The Right Moves, Stef, Modine’s Swain has a secondary goal beyond an athletic scholarship. Weighing in at a lean and lanky 190 (Modine is 6 foot 3), and the best wrestler on his team at that weight, Swain decides to drop a health-threatening 22 pounds so he can wrestle the most feared grappler in the state of Washington: Shute, a perfectly-muscled human being who can be found on any given day carrying a huge log over his shoulders as he walks down the stadium steps.
Shute is already a legend in his weight class, in wrestling as a whole, and within the state. Swain is a terrific wrestler himself, but the amount of weight he will need to drop can’t be done just through exercising, it has to be done by starving yourself. This is Swain’s vision quest: to take on Shute, just maybe beat him, and then head off to college. To put it mildly, it’s a tall order. One that few would undertake.
But that’s the great thing about movies. You don’t have to believe that everyone would make the decisions the character is making, you only have to believe that this character, played by this actor, would do this. A lift for the audience that is made much easier by the work of Modine. I think we’ve all met a guy like Louden before. He’s smart, sweet, funny, talented, and lives in his head more than most of us. Modine pulls off all these effects while also convincing us without fail that he is an elite-level high school athlete.
There was a five-year period from Altman’s Streamers in 1983 to Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob where Modine was an unassailable and enjoyable lead, and while he still picks up solid supporting roles in projects of note (Stranger Things, The Dark Knight Rises, Sicario: Day of the Soldado), much of his resume in recent years is made up of a lot of titles you’ve likely never heard of.
Looking back some 37 years at Vision Quest, it hurts the heart a bit, because Modine had the goods. Every moment on screen he is completely authentic. Whether it’s worrying about his grandpa’s age, his dad’s employment, or Carla, a 21-year-old with car trouble who drifted into their town and, somehow, was asked by the senior Swain if she’d like to stay with him and his son.
And look, it’s a coming of age story, so there’s going to be some sex. What’s lovely though is how Vision Quest understands this is a brief moment in time. While the tough-talking but vulnerable Carla (why, oh why, was Linda Fiorentino not a bigger thing?) knows she isn’t permanent (and Louden probably does too), that largely unspoken understanding lends a lovely, if bittersweet quality to their relationship.
Sometimes very important people come into your life. That time you spent with them must not be judged by a clock, but by impact. Louden and Carla are touched by the sort of impact that will last the rest of their lives, even if they don’t meet again. And so are we.
Of course, being a teen movie about sports, Vision Quest has to lead up to a big game (or in this case, match). No fair telling how it turns out, but the film is an inspiring film with just a tinge of hurt, so I’m guessing you can get there on your own.
But now let’s get back to Pele. If you haven’t seen Vision Quest in a long time (or certainly ever), you may have forgotten the best scene in this film. Louden has a part-time job delivering room service at a run-down motel. There he strikes up a friendship with Elmo, the cook (played by a fabulous J.C. Quinn).
On the night of his big match, Swain stops to see Elmo at the hotel before biking into the auditorium. Elmo isn’t there. He took the night off. Louden knocks on the door of Elmo’s run-down apartment and finds that Elmo passed on making grub for the passers through that evening so he could watch Louden wrestle.
Louden points out that Elmo will miss a whole night of pay for “six minutes” on the mat. Then Elmo launches into a story about a sleepless night he had when he found a futbol game on the Mexican Channel. A game starring the greatest player the sport has ever known: the Brazilian genius known simply as Pele.
Elmo explains that not only does he not understand Spanish, but he doesn’t know much about “soccer” (as we call it here in the USA) either. But somehow neither of those factors matter. He was watching the wonderfully graceful Pele play a game in a way that no futbol player has before or since. At one point during the match, Pele performed his patented bicycle kick. It’s an amazing sight to behold. A player will see the ball in the air, coming toward him, but away from his opponent’s goal. The striker (in this case Pele), will then perform one of the most eye-popping endeavors in all of sport (when it works anyway). The striker will take to the air as if doing a cross between a backflip and a backwards somersault. As the ball reaches its perfect moment of in air suspension, the striker will kick the ball while in the air, head facing the ground, and into the opponent’s goal.
On that night, Elmo was there to see this moment of athletic wizardry, and there, all alone in his dingy apartment, he began to cry.
I think Elmo recognized beauty at that moment. In that quick flash of time he understood he had seen something extraordinary. And if we think long and hard, most of the beauty we catch in life we do so in glimpses. I suppose if beauty were around us all the time, we might not know it when we see it. Vision Quest is about knowing it when you see it. And when you see it, you can’t forget it.
“It ain’t the six minutes. It’s about what happens in that six minutes.”