’365 Days’ Film Highlights the Penn State Community’s Spirit
There was a moment Friday night that struck me when I was trying to digest the film “365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley,” which had just premiered at the State Theatre. The official afterparty spilled over into the nightclub Indigo, normally reserved for 21-year-old debauchery, but the average age on this night must have been closer to 50. In fact, most people still called the place “Player’s”– Indigo’s old moniker — as the motley bunch reminisced about old times in suits and cocktail dresses.
It was an unfamiliar scene for a Friday night at Indigo, of course. I was still feeling a bit emotional about the movie — more on that later — when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Rich Mauti, the former wide receiver better known by this generation as Michael’s father, along with a few other folks making their way to the dance floor. Before too long, Mauti was breaking down to a Madonna song that I am too young to remember with the biggest smile on his face. For just a moment, it was 1974 again, and Mauti was out on the town after helping Penn State win the Cotton Bowl and finish 7th in the country without a care in the world.
It was then that I was reminded again that everything is going to be alright here at Penn State. And really, that was the purpose of the movie.
Sure, it wasn’t all roses. For someone who lived through these horrible moments and still holds a deep emotional attachment, some of the film was hard to watch. The Joe Paterno firing press conference, ensuing riots, Freeh report release, NCAA sanctions, vile media reports, the statue removal, old Sandusky footage — it was all in there, as a mausoleum of our past shame. But the preeminent message was about a community that is still coping, and the audience was treated to two hours of pathos-drenched local stories of coming to grips with this tragic story that consumed us all.
Renowned journalist Charlie Thompson of the Patriot-News took a few direct shots at the film for what he called “gaping holes” in the truth. Thompson notes the film’s omission of any positive commentary to counteract the film’s skepticism about the Freeh report or Penn State’s Board of Trustees and administration. But what Thompson misses is that that’s precisely the point — this is a movie about our community, and around these parts, there are very few voices willing to defend any of those entities. This wasn’t a film meant to fulfill some pie in the sky journalistic standard; it’s purpose was to capture the tenor of the community — a slice of life about the people of the Nittany Valley who are still recovering. And on that standard, it did quite well.
We heard from business owner Mike Desmond, who owns Hotel State College, which operates The Corner Room, Zeno’s, Pickles, Indigo, and other downtown establishments, about the decline in business as a result of the scandal. We heard from consummate Penn Stater Ben Novak, whose articulate criticism of the Board of Trustees is unmatched. There was legendary local fly fisherman Joe Humphreys, who reflects about Penn State teams of old. Michael Mauti played a big part — but how could he not? And of course there was Bob Costas, the unbiased voice of reason on the Freeh report and Penn State.
Graham Spanier got plenty of face time, too. The former president is postured as a sympathetic figure, which is still hard for me to comprehend, having delivered my fair share of snark to the washboard-playing magician when he was still in charge. But the message rings true — most Penn Staters, even the ones who handed out criticism of Spanier during his presidency, would have rather had him to deal with the Sandusky backlash than the malignant if nonexistent leadership in Old Main right now.
But Spanier is a complex man with a complex story, and it’s one that deserves to be told. He said that the support since he was removed as president has been overwhelming — trips to the grocery story that took 15 minutes now take an hour and a half as random people approach him to offer a positive word.
“In the beginning, I talked to so many people who have been through some kind of crisis in their life,” Spanier said in the film. “They all said that in the end, you will be doing something more important and it will all make sense. I don’t understand yet but I’m getting there.”
While the film was largely reflective, it wasn’t completely devoid of news value. Alycia Chambers, the psychologist that flagged Sandusky as a “likely pedophile” in 1998 (police still failed to press charges), was interviewed extensively for the first time since this case blew open in 2011.
Trustee emerita Mimi Barasch Coppersmith is one of the best-known personalities in State College and also added a new element to the story. She recounted a powerful scene in the room when the Board of Trustees decided to fire Joe Paterno — a scene that few trustees have been willing to speak about. As an emerita trustee, Coppersmith didn’t have a vote, but according to her, she was the only person in the room who was willing to speak up on Paterno’s behalf.
“I was recognized to speak and I said, ‘Maybe we should slow down here,’ ” Coppersmith recounted. “But [then-Board President John] Surma told me ‘We’re not going to drink that Kool-Aid.’ ”
Of course, the film isn’t immune from criticism. Only one student – our own Ryan Beckler — was featured, which seems inadequate for the message. At least 20 minutes is dedicated to a strange metaphor between the Penn State situation and the 2006 Nickel Mines shooting that resulted in the death of five Amish children near Lancaster. The mother of the perpetrator was interviewed and the point was to show how the Amish community forgave her son, but the connection to Penn State was sloppy at best considering the amount of time the film dedicated to the comparison.
But despite its flaws and blue and white slant, “365 Days: A Year In Happy Valley” captured the honest spirit of our community better than any media I’ve seen since November 2011. That even through all the unrest and stomach-churning reminders, at the end of the day, Rich Mauti will still be dancing at Indigo like it’s 1974 again.
And really, that consistency is kind of the point.