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10 Fascinating Sports Documentaries

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ESPN’s riveting new documentary, O.J.: Made in America, has captivated audiences with its powerful—and revealing—story about one of the most polarizing figures in sports history. And like many other documentaries, it uses sports to tap into deeper questions about race and gender, media and celebrity, and even about politics and American identity. But sports documentaries can do more than just reflect our culture back to us. They can entertain and inspire us, and make us laugh or cheer. Here are 10 great sports documentaries that scratch deep beneath the surface.

1. OLYMPIA, PART II (1938)

Although Olympia, Part II filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl has come under scrutiny for her involvement in the Nazi Party, there is no denying the visual power of her depiction of the athletes from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Riefenstahl pioneered dozens of motion picture techniques that have become staples of both cinematic storytelling and sports coverage. Her use of editing during the diving montage is utterly breathtaking, capturing the agility and grace of the athletes from almost every angle imaginable.

2. THE ENDLESS SUMMER (1966)

It’s the ultimate fantasy: Director Bruce Brown followed a group of young surfers as they traveled the world looking for the “perfect wave.” Brown’s cinematography helped to romanticize surfer culture and to introduce the sport to millions of viewers. The Endless Summer famously followed its subjects along the west coast of Africa and the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, before settling in Durban, South Africa, where they find what they are looking for: four-foot waves that could carry them for 15 minutes at a time. It’s a film that captures not just the joy of surfing, but the beauty of it as well.

3. PUMPING IRON (1977)

The subject of hundreds of gender studies theses, Pumping Iron depicts the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competitions from the 1970s. The film helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger as a national celebrity, while also portraying him as shallow and self-absorbed. Throughout the film, Schwarzenegger blissfully describes “the pump”—the rush of blood into the muscles during a workout—as a form of sexual pleasure and candidly admits to deceiving his opponents.

4. HOOP DREAMS (1994)

Roger Ebert once called Hoop Dreams the best film of the 1990s. Following two teenage basketball stars, Arthur Agee and William Gates, throughout their high school careers, Hoop Dreams captures the raw emotions of competing on the court and struggling to survive in inner city Chicago. Though both players have their share of successes and setbacks while playing basketball, many of the film’s most touching moments take place off the court, including one profound moment of triumph for Agee’s mother as she achieves her own modest form of success. Hoop Dreams also offers a trenchant critique of the sports recruiting industry through a powerful cameo by filmmaker Spike Lee.

5. BASEBALL (1994)

Ken Burns’s sweeping, nine-part series documents the history of baseball from its rugged origins to the home run-obsessed (and steroid-inflated) 1990s. Burns provides much more than a nostalgic portrait of a pastoral sport. Instead he demonstrates baseball’s importance to the Civil Rights movement and an extended discussion of Curt Flood’s courageous battle against Major League Baseball’s unethical labor policies that prevented players from negotiating with multiple teams, which paved the way for the modern free agency system.

6. WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996)

Leon Gast’s energetic documentary portrays one of the most famous heavyweight bouts of all time, the “Rumble in the Jungle,” featuring Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Gast captures Ali as a youthful and charismatic underdog during the peak years of the Black Power movement in both the U.S. and Africa. Interviews with public figures ranging from Spike Lee and James Brown to George Plimpton and Norman Mailer weigh in on everything from Ali’s cultural significance to his skill as a poet. But the real strength of When We Were Kings is the archival footage of Ali walking the streets of Kinshasa while adoring fans chant, “Ali, bomaye” (kill him), while a petulant Foreman mopes off in the distance.

7. DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS (2001)

Filmmaker Stacy Peralta uses archival footage and contemporary interviews to portray the birth of the punk/skater subculture in the 1970s. Peralta, along with the rest of the Zephyr team, brought surfing moves to skateboarding and helped to develop new moves that differed radically from other skateboarders during that era. One of the most fascinating tidbits from the film: the Z-Boys pioneered their flashy aerial techniques during a drought in the mid-1970s, when they developed their moves in empty swimming pools. Added bonus: The documentary is narrated by Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn.

8. TOUCHING THE VOID (2003)

Touching the Void is a dramatic retelling of Simon Yates and Joe Simpson’s efforts to climb Siula Grande in Peru. After reaching the summit, Simpson slipped and broke his leg, and when Yates attempted to lower Simpson into a crevasse, he inadvertently lowered him off a cliff, making it impossible for them to communicate and forcing Yates to make the difficult decision to leave his friend behind. Miraculously, both men managed to survive the ordeal and even went back to the original location to reenact some of the documentary’s key scenes. Touching the Void, with its liberal use of reenactments, pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, while also offering viewers a thrilling story of survival.

9. MURDERBALL (2005)

Murderball is an engaging documentary that introduces audiences to a relatively unknown sport, “quad rugby,” a modified form of rugby in which all of the participants are quadriplegics. The action cinematography of the film is captivating, depicting the violent collisions and quick movements that characterize the sport with cinematography that puts the viewer at eye-level with the players. Like Pumping Iron, Murderball serves as an exploration of codes of masculinity and how they intersect with definitions of disability. It’s a fascinating, heartfelt, and fun little film.

10. ONCE IN A LIFETIME: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF THE NEW YORK COSMOS (2006).

While soccer has steadily risen in popularity here in the United States, many fans will have forgotten the old New York Cosmos team, from the original North American Soccer League (NASL), and their captivating stars, Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia. Many of the team’s players were fixtures in the city’s nightlife—frequenting clubs like Studio 54—and the documentary captures how Cosmos matches were festive events that featured everything from cheerleaders to Bugs Bunny mascots. Once in a Lifetime also helps to contextualize the role of the old NASL in popularizing youth soccer programs in the U.S., paving the way for the sport’s current popularity.

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5 Quick Facts About the Hashtag
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The use of the hashtag as a Twitter tool to denote a specific topic in order for the masses to follow along turns 10 years old today, having first been suggested (in a Tweet, naturally) by Silicon Valley regular and early adopter Chris Messina back in 2007. Here’s a little history on its evolution from the humble numerical sign to the social media giant it is today.

1. IT COMES FROM THE LATIN TERM FOR “POUND WEIGHT.”

There’s no definitive origin story for the hash (or pound) symbol, but one belief is that when 14th-century Latin began to abbreviate the term for pound weight—libra pondo—to “lb,” a horizontal slash was added to denote the letters were connected. (The bar was called a tittle.) As people began to write more quickly, the letters and the tittle became amalgamated, eventually morphing into the symbol we see today.

2. IT SHOULD ACTUALLY BE CALLED AN OCTOTHORPETAG.

The symbol portion of the hashtag eventually made its way to dial-button telephones, the result of AT&T looking forward to phones interacting with computers. In order to complete a square keypad with 10 digits (including 0), they added the numerical sign and an asterisk. AT&T employee Don MacPherson thought they sign needed a more official name, so he chose Octothorpe—“octo” because it has eight points, and “thorpe” because he was a fan of football hero Jim Thorpe.

3. TWITTER WASN’T BIG ON THE IDEA AT FIRST.

When web marketer Messina had the notion to add hashtags to keep track of conversations, he stopped by Twitter’s offices to make an informal pitch. He came at a bad time: co-founder Biz Stone was trying to get the software back online after a crash and dismissed the idea with a “Sure, we’ll get right on that” burn. Undeterred, Messina started using them and the habit caught on.

4. IT’S IN THE OXFORD DICTIONARY.

By 2014, respect for the hashtag had grown to the point where the venerable Oxford English Dictionary gave the word its stamp of approval. Their entry: "hashtag n. (on social media web sites and applications) a word or phrase preceded by a hash and used to identify messages relating to a specific topic; (also) the hash symbol itself, when used in this way."

5. THERE ARE SOME HASHTAG ALL-TIMERS.

Hashtags can highlight interest in everything from political movements to breaking news stories, but the frequency of their use is often tied into popular culture. The most popular TV-related tag has been #TheWalkingDead; #StarWars sees a lot of action; and #NFL dominates sports-related Tweets.  

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12 Sharp Facts About Hellraiser
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In 1987, the New World Pictures released Hellraiser, a horror film about a family who opens a puzzle box and invites hell in their lives in the form of pleasure-pain creatures known as Cenobites, who are lead by Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley). Unlike many other horror films at the time, Hellraiser wasn’t a slasher film, and Pinhead wasn’t a boogeyman.

British novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Clive Barker wanted to direct a feature film, so he adapted his 1986 horror novella, The Hellbound Heart, into Hellraiser. Despite the graphic nature of the film, it’s really a love story between Julia Cotton and her demented—and skinless—lover Frank  ... whose relationship just so happens to revolve around sadistic torture.

Hellraiser was produced for around a $1 million and grossed $14 million, making it lucrative enough to spawn nine sequels, including this year’s Hellraiser: Judgment. (Bradley hasn’t starred in a Hellraiser film since 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations, and Barker didn’t direct or write any of the sequels, most of which were direct-to-DVD releases.) As we near the 30th anniversary of its release, let's take a look back at this horror classic.

1. THE ORIGINS OF PINHEAD CAME FROM A 1973 PLAY.

Before Doug Bradley uttered the catchphrase “We’ll tear your soul apart,” Clive Barker directed him in a 1973 play called Hunters in the Snow, in which Bradley played the Dutchman, a torturer who would become the basis for Pinhead.

“The character I played in Hunters, the Dutchman, I can see echoes of later... Pinhead in Hellraiser," Bradley said. "This strange, strange character whose head was kind of empty but who conveyed all kinds of things.”

Barker’s mid-1980s short story “The Forbidden”—which was adapted into Candyman—from his "Books of Blood" series, featured the first incarnation of Pinhead’s nails. “One image I remember very strongly from 'The Forbidden' was that Clive had built what he called his nail-board, which was basically a block of wood which he’d squared off and then he’d banged six-inch nails in at the intersections of the squares,” Bradley said. “Of course, when I saw the first illustrations for [Pinhead], it rang a bell with me that here was Clive putting the ideas that he’d been playing around with the nail-board in 'The Forbidden,' now 10, 15 years later. He’d now put the image all over a human being’s face.”

2. CLIVE BARKER CAST “REAL ACTORS.”

Unlike many other horror movies of the time, which were more concerned with gore than great acting, Barker insisted that they look for real talent in the casting. “I’m not just taking the 12 most beautiful youths in California and murdering them,” Barker told The Washington Post in 1987. “I’ve got real actors, real performers—and then I’m murdering them.” The “real” refers to British theater actors like Bradley, Clare Higgins, and Andrew Robinson.

3. PINHEAD WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE ON THE POSTER.

New World Pictures

Bradley said the filmmakers wanted skinned Frank to be on the poster, but the studio said no to the grotesque imagery, so Pinhead was used on the poster instead. “Maybe that came from Clive, because what we get in that image of Pinhead with the box is the heart of the Hellraiser mythology,” Bradley said. “If you put The Engineer or the skinned man on the poster, it’s an amazing image but it’s just an image, and it could come from any movie.” Bradley thought using Pinhead’s face made more sense. “The big success of Pinhead is because the image is so original, so startling. It is just an incredible image to look at, and that made a big difference in terms of the public's perception of the movie.”

4. NO ONE KNEW THAT DOUG BRADLEY WAS PINHEAD.

Bradley’s Pinhead mug was everywhere—on the cover of magazines and on the movie’s poster—but no one mentioned his name. “It was great to be so heavily featured, but there was no way to prove to anyone that it was actually me,” Bradley said. “Those who were following Hellraiser at the time were wondering where the guy with the pins was! Well I can tell you where I was—I was sitting at home in England, watching it all happen from the sidelines.”

5. THE CENOBITES' DESIGN WAS INSPIRED BY S&M CLUBS.

In the box set’s liner notes, Barker wrote that the Cenobites's “design was influenced amongst other things by punk, by Catholicism, and by the visits I would take to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam.” Costume designer Jane Wildgoose created the costumes, based on Barker’s instruction of “repulsive glamour.”

“The other notes that I made about what he wanted was that they should be ‘magnificent super-butchers,’” Wildgoose said.

As for Pinhead, Barker said he “had seen a book containing photographs of African fetishes: sculptures of human heads crudely carved from wood and then pierced with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of nails and spikes. They were images of rage, the text instructed.”

6. IT'S REALLY A LOVE STORY.

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Julia is forced to bring men back to her house and murder them for Frank so that he can replenish his flesh. Barker looked at Hellraiser as more of a love story, with Julia committing these heinous acts in the name of love, not just to be brutal for no reason.

“She’s not committing murder in the way that Jason in the Friday the 13th films commits murder—just for the sake of blood-letting —she’s doing it for love,” Barker told Samhain. “So there is a sympathetic quality about her, enhanced hugely in my estimation by the fact that Clare Higgins does it so well.”

7. BARKER’S GRANDFATHER INSPIRED THE PUZZLE BOX.

When a person twists the box, known as the Lament Configuration, it summons the Cenobites from the gates of hell into the individual's world. “I wanted to have access to hell in the book and in the first movie, explored by something rather different than drawing a circle on the floor with magical symbols around it,” Barker told WIRED. “That seemed rather stale and rather old.”

Barker explained his grandfather was a cook on ship and brought back a puzzle box from the Far East. “So when I went back to the problem of how to open the doors of hell, the idea of [using] a puzzle box seemed interesting to me. You know, the image of a cube is everywhere in world culture, whether it’s the Rubik’s Cube or the idea of the [Tesseract] in The Avengers movies. There’s a lot of places where the image of a cube as a thing of power is pertinent. I don’t know why that is, I don’t have any mythic explanation for it, but it seems to work for people.”

8. ROGER EBERT WASN'T A FAN OF THE FILM.

Roger Ebert gave Hellraiser just a half star when he reviewed it in 1987. “Who goes to see movies like this? This is a movie without wit, style, or reason,” he wrote, adding that, “I have seen the future of implausible plotting, and his name is Clive Barker.”

9. SOMEONE HAD THE JOB OF MAGGOT AND COCKROACH WRANGLER.

In England, there was a law in which cockroaches of both sexes weren’t allowed on set, because they could have mated and caused an infestation. So Barker had to hire someone to oversee the situation. “The wrangler, this is the honest truth, had to sex the roaches,” Barker told an audience at a Hellraiser screening. “They were all male. And we had a fridge. They move very fast, so the only way to slow them down was to chill them. We chilled the maggots and the roaches. We'd open it up and it was all reassuring. It was fun.”

10. BARKER PREFERS "HELL PRIEST" TO "PINHEAD."

In The Hellbound Heart, the Cenobite with pins sticking out of his head is called The Hell Priest. One of the special effects guys who worked on the movie gave the character his nickname. “I thought it was a rather undignified thing to call the monster, but once it stuck, it stuck,” Barker told Grantland.

In 2015, Barker published a sequel to The Hellbound Heart, The Scarlet Gospels, which features Pinhead getting annoyed when people call him that—as well as Pinhead’s demise. “He will not be coming back, by the way," Barker said. "That I promise you."

11. A HELLRAISER VS. HALLOWEEN MOVIE ALMOST HAPPENED.

In an interview with Game Radar, Bradley said the success of Freddy vs. Jason led Hellraiser distributor Dimension Films to flirt with a Hellraiser vs. Halloween film. “I was actually getting excited by the prospect of this because Clive said he would write it and John Carpenter said he would direct it,” Bradley said. “I actually spoke to Clive about it a couple of times and he was interested in finding the places where the Halloween and Hellraiser worlds intermeshed.” But Moustapha Akkad, who owned the rights to Halloween, extinguished the idea.

12. THE BRITISH BOARD OF FILM CLASSIFICATION HAD TO CHECK THAT NO RATS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THE MOVIE.

While the MPAA requested that a spanking scene be cut for its American release, England's BBFC agreed to release the movie as it was, if they were assured that the rats used in the film weren’t hurt. “I had to bring three remote-control rats into the censor’s office and make them wriggle about on the floor,” producer Christopher Figg told The Telegraph. “They wanted to be sure we hadn’t been cruel to them.”

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