What’s Happened So Far: A Review of “From Deep”

Harlem 3

Under Review: From Deep by Brett Kashmere (88 minutes, 2014) 

My personal obsession with basketball was born in—and you know what, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if your own story was pretty close—my childhood backyard, a hoop nailed to the wood awning. More afternoons than not would find me, with spelling and multiplication homework untouched, hucking up shots for hours at a time. Not that I was developing a wicked J that would one day elevate my high school team to glory. Most of the time I was totally absorbed in some daydream, sometimes about unleashing domination upon the NBA (and always, the dream went, as the league’s only 10-year-old player) and just as often about the adventures that would transpire when I suddenly got access to the alternate dimension where all the Pokemon lived. But I stayed focused in this world often enough that I learned the satisfaction of seeing, hearing, feeling my own shot rip through the net—a moment that still triggers an intoxicating surge of endorphins today and also, I can’t see why not, for the rest of my life.

Filmmaker Brett Kashmere understands the importance of these sunny afternoons—and also the rainy ones that sent me to the Nerf hoop on my bedroom door. He understands that the stakes of that morning’s basketball games at recess, and eventually gym class, were high indeed. I know he understands, because that understanding is all over his new documentary, From Deep. It’s a film that manages, like all true and real loves, to see the best and most glorious traits about basketball, the professional and playground games alike, while also acknowledging the legion of unsightly warts on its personality—namely, this game’s tense and fraught racial history.

Kashmere labels his films as “essays.” There’s probably a really precise definition for a film “essay,” and Kashmere surely not only knows that definition but has written about the major figures of the genre for a scholarly film journal. As a former Professor of Cinema Studies, with three degrees in film in tow, Kashmere is not exactly dicking around with iMovie on the weekends. To my eyes, a film essay is a lot like a documentary, but made primarily with archival footage, a swirling collage of clips and splices from all imaginable sources. Kashmere narrates over the footage, but it’s not the distant, vaguely scholarly tones of a Discovery Channel company man describing the foraging habits of the hermit crab. Kashmere’s script is earnest, incisive, personal.

The best way to understand Kashmere’s work is to see it for yourself. On his Vimeo account, Kashmere has posted his half-hour 2006 essay Valery’s Ankle, which is focused on the 1972 “Summit Series” between the Canadian and Soviet national hockey teams. It’s a subject I’d never even heard of before, much less cared about—but I immediately became invested in the story’s gravitational pull. Extrapolating outwards from the microcosm of one play from the Summit Series—in which Canadian Bobby Clarke broke the ankle of Soviet Valery Kharlamov with a purposeful whack of his stick—Kashmere (himself a native Canadian) explores what hockey’s pervasive and gratuitous violence says about the outwardly pleasant Canadian national identity. Unlike, say, our contemporary Olympic coverage, there is no need to redeem the story with a stirring third act of piano-tinkled inspiration: a rapid montage of hockey fights from all eras becomes dizzying, even nauseating. It’s compelling stuff.

From Deep sees Kashmere’s focus shift from hockey to basketball, going from half-hour to full-feature length. The movie begins at the beginning—the very beginning, with Naismith, in Springfield—and continues on all the way up to LeBron’s Decision. In more conventional hands that means From Deep would be a history book of the game, a museum exhibit guiding the viewer through the sport’s major plot points. And while we do get all of the plot points (some moments will be review for all ye diehards) what From Deep provides is a dynamic sampler of basketball’s constantly evolving aesthetics. As Kashmere cuts a precise path through what feels like miles of tape from every imaginable source—from national-broadcast HD to games where the bottom wasn’t yet cut out of the basket to the annals of Hollywood’s portrayals of basketball—the perpetual progression of basketball styles begins to reveal its shape, the change over decades of play artfully distilled for a single sitting.

As From Deep emerges out of basketball’s unknowable, grainy past and into the recognizable, color-broadcast era, both the soundtrack and the footage become incrementally stylized. The practical, rigid basketball of the fifties gives way to the broader imaginations and increased ballhandling skills of the sixties, and at the same time that hip-hop’s tonal antecedents were being pressed. The aerial flourishes of the ABA mirror perfectly the groovy studio tracks of the seventies. The entrance of Magic Johnson especially feels like a revelation, his offensive game feels unprecedentedly smooth and energizing: the dozens of anonymous dribblers we have seen, hunched over slightly at the waist, may as well be cavemen for as many intellectual generations they are behind Johnson’s flair, creativity, and range. By this time it hardly feels like a coincidence that Kashmere is able to perfectly match the genre explorations of the Showtime Lakers with hip-hop’s first self-realized hits. It’s as if the twin industries of basketball and music are taking cues from each other, each prodding the other to step out into new sonic landscapes. Onwards into the nineties and this century, the influence of the most racially loaded figures of the times (see: N.W.A., Allen Iverson) is subsumed by the unavoidable wave of commerce and endorsements.

Just like the playground games it so admires, From Deep is joyfully devoid of the background hum of commercial pressures. It does not grab hip-hop’s coattails because hip-hop is the shortcut ticket to the prized demographics du jour: high esteem is given to both the game and the music. Both topics are discussed because, overflowing with the creativity and passions of so many brilliant people as they are, both topics deserve to be discussed.

From Deep is being released and screened here in 2014, but its expiration date is nowhere on the horizon. Stick it in a Smithsonian vault and bring it out twenty, thirty years from now and it will all make perfect sense. Who knows if basketball and hip-hop will have a close relationship by then—if hip-hop, the way we know it, will still exist—but From Deep will still make sense; it will make sense because it has so totally captured the styles that have happened in and to basketball up to this point. Kashmere has given us a uniquely thoughtful and meticulous view of basketball, respecting and exploring the imprints the game has made, and will continue to make, on the rest of society. Watch what he does next.

Check out a screening of From Deep on April 19th, at Toronto’s Images Festival. You can watch excerpts from the movie here

Miles Wray