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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

The First Saturday in May (2008, 1/2 *)

Louisville, Kentucky racetrack and pari-mutuel parlor Churchill Downs is one of the financiers of the eighteen-city release of John and Brad Hennegan’s “The First Saturday in May,” a decidedly subpar specialist documentary about the annual gambling and drinking bacchanal, the Kentucky Derby. Despite the dreadful pacing in its vérité about something exceptionally false (a gleaming symbol of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, a battered and dying state), aggressive and aggravating intertitles and captioning and an eclectic, abysmal score credited to The FirstSaturdayinMay_3458.jpgRyan Brothers (among almost a dozen credits to the Hennegan brothers in the end roll), “First Saturday” provides a distinctly unflattering portrait of the attendants of the six equine hopefuls on display. It’s hard to tell whether the filmmakers are aware that virtually everyone on screen, painfully banal and semi-articulate almost to a soul are also dislikeable, earnest, often profane bores. (There’s a shocking amount of profanity that would likely alienate some of the potential buyers who’d place the DVD in their third bedroom of their second home.) A typical example: a trainer in a wheelchair who’d had a dirt-bike accident, we’re told, was a shining example, for him to have “come back with a vengeance… to show the determination… it’s just beyond the call of duty… it’s just something unexplainable.” (And nearly unwatchable.) A rich trophy wife of a horse-owner is shown making jokes about plastic surgery (and even gets subtitles despite not having that distinct a drawl). One trainer has a pair of cousins who are given one of the film’s final scenes in a drunken, profane ramble on a golf course. One jarring moment is when a black man sweeping the stables reflects, “We takin’ care of million dollar horses, horses worth a million dollars, we takin’ care of.” (It’s strange and casual, but it’s hard to tell whether the filmmakers understand the weight of the moment’s inclusion, which is almost as troubling an editing choice as the words from the Kentucky congressman over the weekend who called Barack Obama “boy.”) There’s Tammy, a tiny female jockey, who seems likeable, but her moments are shared with her small young son who’s got a wad of “a thousand and thirty-four” dollars he’s going to bet. “Horses and poker, that’s his thing right now… He’s just like his father,” she says, leaving us to imagine what that truly means. Mostly, the screen is given over to tedious arcana that doesn’t demonstrate anything memorable, with rare flashes like the trainer who’s about to lose profanely crossing himself at post time. (“Shit fire, man! Shit fire, is his keen observation after his horse’s screw-up.) “First Saturday” may be comprehensible to someone who knows this stuff, who could stitch their own tout sheet, but to a general viewer, ought to be deeply dull. Taking a note from the filmmakers, I’ll end with the words of the hanger-on cousins on the green: “You motherfuckers don’t know anything about whiskey… Everybody’s got dreams but everybody likes t’crush ’em…. For us, the Derby’s fucking everything, it’s like the World Series, Superbowl, everything, and our whole life we’ve been going to the track and Dale’s starting from nothing… I say we’re in the Derby, but I use it as we, it’s the best thing that every happened to him or us… We’re at the big dance. It’s a proud day…. Shit… we’re on top of it!” And the staggeringly drunk man spits on the green. Opens Friday: Austin, Berkeley, Boston, Denver, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. Opens April 25 Atlanta, Milwaukee, Seattle. [Trailer.]

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