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Volume 77, Number 23 | November. 07 -13 2007

Villager Ben Selkow, director of “A Summer in the Cage,” about a hoops player at the West 4th St. basketball court and his battle with mental illness.

A player’s shattered hoop dreams, caught on film

By Sarah Norris

Despite the fact that Ben Selkow came to New York in 1996 with a film degree, it wasn’t until he became a second grade teacher that he broke into the industry. One of his student’s fathers was an actor, who learned that Selkow was passionate about film and subsequently offered him work as a production assistant on his next project. Selkow spent the next two years as a P.A. and assistant director on movies, commercials, and episodic television shows such as “Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.”

In 2000, as part of his job associate producing “Beyond the Glory” for Fox Sports, Selkow began traveling to different neighborhoods in New York to make compilation DVDs about street basketball tournaments. The assignment sparked his idea for a documentary about three generations of street ball players, and that June, Selkow, a longtime Village resident, borrowed money from friends to buy a video camera and staked out the basketball “cage” on W. 4th St. to record the action on the courts and the stories of the players behind it.

One of the regulars was Sam Murchison, then 30, who stood out both for his height (6’7’’) and his charismatic energy. “When I met Sam,” says Selkow, 33, “he was at the top of the throne: handsome, talented, with an incredible group of friends.” Murchison had recently left his job in finance to pursue photography and work on becoming a sports commentator. He wanted to use Selkow’s film as a platform to address race relations in America, and was passionate — indeed, obsessed — about the long-shot prospect of a Bill Bradley-Colin Powell double-billing in the upcoming presidential election. He and Selkow stayed up late at nights discussing the film’s direction, and over a period of weeks, it grew evident that Murchison had stopped sleeping altogether. His mania and erratic behavior became untenable; he was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder that August.

“The decision to make a film about Sam,” Selkow says, “was a long deliberation. When he got out of the hospital in the fall of 2000, he was excited about it.” And then, feeling that “the walls were closing in,” Murchison fled New York to return home to California. Selkow’s job at Fox increasingly demanded the majority of his time, but he held onto the tapes, resolving to come back to them.

“At first, I thought I would just make a short film about this bizarre, crazy summer I had,” says Selkow. “Sam was coming back for a visit, so that seemed like a good way to wrap up the film.” A day of shooting in Central Park, however, revealed that Murchison had become unhinged. “He was very lucid, but it was an incredibly stressful day—trying to rein him in and do the film at the same time was overwhelming. I’m 6’2’’ and 200 pounds, but Sam outweighs me by a hundred pounds.” When Selkow noticed that Sam’s breathing was off, he put down the camera to focus on his friend, who later admitted to having weaned himself off his medications. The question of when to start — and stop — filming would follow both men for the next seven years.

The finished work, “A Summer in the Cage,” premiered on the Sundance Channel in October. One of the more disturbing scenes was filmed that day in the park, and it shows Sam swimming in the lake, kneeling in front of a statue (to which he has affixed a written sign reading “HUMAN”), and then sharing with a group of strangers intimate details of his father’s manic depression and suicide.

“My whole life,” Sam confesses at a later point in the movie, “I wanted to be a father because I didn’t have one. Now my children are going to get this, so I can’t have children. It’s devastating.” Selkow interviewed Sam’s mother, as well as Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry who has written extensively about bipolar disorder, from which she also suffers. Jamison reports that between three and five percent of the country’s population has the disease, divided equally among men, women, and all races. The movie offers an extraordinarily personal portrait of the disease, tracking Murchison’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with the fact that, as he says in the movie, “My manic depression and I are in the same room, and neither of us is ever going to leave.” Selkow reveals that “ ‘A Summer in the Cage’ was the film’s original title, and the irony around keeping it is the metaphor of mentally being locked in a cage.”

The emotional toll also weighs heavily on Sam’s family and friends, including Selkow, who Sam describes as “the closest thing [he has] to a therapist.” For the viewer, who has witnessed Sam as a fully functioning and productive extrovert, the stark contrast of his life in Los Angeles is occasionally a difficult one to watch. One result of his medications is a 70-pound weight gain, which sidelines him on basketball courts, and in romantic arenas. When off his medication, Sam’s mania, in his words, “is like Ecstasy, but better, because it goes on for days.” But the higher the highs, Selkow observes, the worse the crash on the way back down. Sam’s seeming apparent inability to find a job or be accountable and engaged with the world at large stem from his isolating depression.

The predominant reason Selkow continued filming Sam for so many years—and Sam recorded himself in Selkow’s absence—was spurred by the director’s determination “to get the Hollywood ending we both wanted for the film. Sam was going to have a teaching job, reinvent himself and move on.” Selkow now hypothesizes that the expectation of a happy ending protracted the filming process because Sam may have been “waiting for the celebrity of the film to deliver him from his condition.”

The movie’s ending, as in life, isn’t black and white. “We kept trying to script reality but we couldn’t,” Selkow says. Over time, Sam expressed real ambivalence and resentment about the movie, eventually blaming Selkow for the stalled condition of his life. It became apparent to both men that they had to call it quits. “Sam’s story is continuing,” Selkow says, adding that Murchison has not yet watched the documentary. They are currently out of touch, following a pattern of their friendship, but Selkow hopes that the real work of the film will be done on an educational level. “I’ve been humbled by the power of mental illness and Sam’s bravery, and love of Sam’s mom and sister. It’s been, personally, a major challenge to finish this, but the advocacy is important in order for people to learn as much as they can. I’m hoping the inspiration of Sam’s courage and honesty can permeate.”

In the immediate future, there are no screenings scheduled in New York, but DVDs are available for those interested in hosting screenings. For more information about the film or to contact Ben Selkow, visit www.cagethemovie.com.

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