Lenny Cooke: Nearly Man

A New Documentary Follows a High School Basketball Player's Flirtation with Superstardom

Will he become a star or will he crash and burn? New York-based directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s latest documentary Lenny Cooke, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, is a fascinating take on the American dream that sees basketball hopeful Cooke battling to become top dog alongside future NBA stars Carmello Anthony and LeBron James. In 2001 producer Adam Shopkorn happened upon the film’s eponymous star, a Brooklyn-born prodigy with a considerable following even while at high school. Shopkorn began to follow him with a camera, sensing massive potential from the growing phenomenon around him. But Cooke never reached the heights he seemed destined for, leading Shopkorn to return to the story ten years on and enlist the Safdie brothers, whose work includes The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Go Get Some Rosemary, to complete the project. “There was an overriding mystery to Lenny as a person,” says Benny. “He wasn’t like everyone else around him—he was a star; he stood out.” Pieced together from over 50 hours of archival footage and nearly 150 hours shot by the brothers, the film is a modern parable—a mash-up of Hoop Dreams and The Blind Side. “Lenny is a better person today,” Benny adds of his subject. “After the fall from the spotlight he definitely matured into a fuller human being. Who knows what would have happened had he gotten that million-dollar contract, but I think it is safe to say that his soul is more pure.”

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  • Call for Submissions
    Call for Submissions

    Shorts on Sundays: Waterpark

    Our New Open Call For Experimental Films Launches With Evan Prosofsky's Directorial Debut

    Artificial waves crash and swimsuit-clad patrons frolic in the strange suburban utopia of World Waterpark in Alberta, Canada, in cinematographer Evan Prosofsky’s first directorial effort, launching an open call for submissions to our new Shorts on Sundays series via the NOWNESS Vimeo channel. The aquatic playground cast as the uncanny protagonist in Waterpark is located inside the West Edmonton Mall, North America’s largest shopping destination. “I never seemed to adjust to the absurdity,” says the director of shooting in his hometown’s famous fantasyland. “Even as a kid, I just couldn’t believe we had flamingos, submarines, roller coasters, and pirate ships in our mall.” The increasingly sought-after cinematographer became known as the lensman behind several of last year’s most shared music videos, including Grimes’ “Oblivion,” Bat for Lashes’ “All Your Gold” and Grizzly Bear’s “Yet Again.” Sound features prominently in Waterpark, too, with the soundtrack composed by Prosofsky’s friend Alex Zhang Hungtai, aka Dirty Beaches, infusing the innocent family environment with a seductive, contemplative undertone. “[Evan] told me of his experience there as a child,” says the Taiwanese-born Canadian musician of the effort. “That helped me understand his perspective, and I liked how neutral and non-judgmental it was.” Shot over a span of three years, the labor of love hints at the anxiety that lays dormant behind an otherwise glossy North American leisure culture. “Once I was in there,” Prosofsky recalls of shooting in plain view. “No one paid me the slightest bit of attention.” We asked Emily Kai Bock to share her thoughts on her collaborator's uncommon vision and process.

    Waterpark is an early glimpse into the way Evan has structured his life around the craft of cinematography—being a typical teen working at the West Edmonton mall, but using his money and time off to go to the expense of documenting the space for hours on 16mm. It's rare to find that kind of devotion and love for the craft with a cinematographer. I've led him into many situations on several videos where his equipment could have been confiscated or ruined by the conditions. When we were shooting Grizzly Bear's "Yet Again" I remember watching him as he read the manual for a HydroFlex underwater housing before dropping it into a swimming pool with his own 35mm camera inside. The camera was safe, but it demonstrated that getting the shot was more valuable to him then his own equipment. His knowledge has provided an unwavering buoyancy through our sink-or-swim shoots. 

    Visit the NOWNESS Vimeo page for more information on how to submit to our Shorts on Sundays open call.

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  • On Replay
    On Replay

    April’s Savior: The Umbrella

    The Cruelest Month’s Ultimate Accessory Gets the Hero Treatment from Stephen Bayley and Tell No One

    As May flowers appear closer on the horizon, we cope with April skies by celebrating the wetter month's undisputed rain-warrior: the umbrella. The iconic accessory is the star of this film by Tell No One, AKA Luke White and Remi Weekes, winners of the Young Directors Award (Video Art Europe) at Cannes 2012, with creative direction by Leila Latchin. The brolly also forms the focus of design expert and sophisticate Stephen Bayley’s century spanning essay. 

    The Umbrella by Stephen Bayley

    There are parts of southern Italy where they have a splendid tradition of flying monks. St. Joseph, who could hover, was one example. But I have seen in obscure churches dingy images of other monks using umbrellas to assist flight.

    In fact, there is a school of thought, unscholarly, but persuasive, that the umbrella’s origin was not as a protection against rain, but as an experimental parachute-like device. Indeed, anybody who has used one in heavy rain knows that, so far from keeping you dry, an umbrella can be used to direct torrents of water onto any part of your body.

    The umbrella may be part of the English gentleman’s iconography, but its cultural history goes back farther than Pall Mall and Clubland. In Nineveh, Persia, Athens and the India of the Mahabharata, parasols accessorized high-status figures and guarded them from the sun: the word umbrella, in fact, comes from the Italian word for “shade.” Associations with sunshine remain with the cocktail umbrella, popularized by San Francisco’s Trader Vic’s, where a cute little pastel-colored paper and wood parasol decorates your Mai Tai and threatens to put your eye out with every sunny sip.

    Protection from the sun gave way to protection from the rain when the umbrella began to appear on the streets of London in the late 18th century, an idea perhaps imported from China. It became so much a symbol of Imperial authority that in Victorian Africa tribal chieftains borrowed umbrellas as status symbols irrespective of weather conditions.

    Post-Freud, we know that the Empire’s tightly-furled umbrella suggests a vulnerable mixture of repression and anxiety in its user. Personally, despite the quasi-phallic character which any thrusting device acquires, I have always found umbrellas emasculating. Isn’t it more manly to get wet? Even Bulgaria’s secret police the Darzhavna Sigurnost’s interesting efforts to weaponize umbrellas by fitting them with ricin-poisoned pellets for subtle urban assassinations has not, if you ask me, made them any more butch.

    And now the umbrella is changing. In the 19th century, silk replaced oiled canvas and umbrellas became lighter and more portable, but, nonetheless, a classic umbrella (the sort you might buy from James Smith & Co) with its cane handle and heavy metal frame is an expensive encumbrance instead of a lightweight convenience. Umbrellas are now compact, cheap and disposable. And, coming full-circle, they are all made in China : the province of Shangyu alone is said to have more than 1,000 dedicated umbrella factories.

    But the umbrella argument remains strong. Despite its functional deficiencies, the potential of any portable device which gives its user a customized protective microclimate will forever be alluring. So, the technological successor to the umbrella may well be the sort of electro-magnetic repellent force field the army is developing for main battle tanks. Imagine: you could be fitted with a supercapacitor, switch it on, charge it up and walk boldly into London weather and remain like a duck’s back.

    But the classic umbrella will, in one form or another, be with us forever. So unambiguous are its meanings that, all over the planet, an umbrella graphic is immediately understood to mean… there is a danger of getting wet. No one ever wants that which is why no-one will ever love an umbrella. You cannot wash away associations of rain.

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