Sunday, January 25, 2004
Are You Ready for Some...?

Early in the football playoffs (I rarely follow football -- to the extent of not having realized that the Patriots got good since I left the Boston area -- but when working at the cafe I always put any games on, based on the knowledge that if I don't, somebody will come up and ask why not) I found myself musing on an idea that has long sat at the back of my mind-- that of the incredible laziness of all sports films. For one thing, sports are inherently dramatic. It doesn't take much effort or imagination to set up conflict or motivation-- they already exist arbitrarily. Second, there is no real need to show the underlying dynamics with any degree of subtlety, as the screenwriter can (and invariably does) throw in a commentator (or possible full Greek Chorus of them) to explain everything.

Business was slow, so I found myself dreaming up a Dogme '98 style set of rules for a chaste football movie. First off, no announcers or commentators allowed-- anything and everything has to be shown through the actions of the coaches and players... possibly even owners, but they could not be allowed any expository dialogue. Following this, we would have a list of football movie cliches (the once-great aging star looking for one last great season, etc and etc) to avoid... but they're not important. What's really important is the ending.

At the end of the last game, clock ticking down, the team you're rooting for can't be several points behind and needing a huge offensive play to score the winning touchdown. They must either be: hopelessly behind with no conceivable hope of winning, but still soldier on; comfortably ahead after a few huge plays and exerting minimal effort to maintain their commanding lead; or (most dramatically) a few points ahead, with the other team threatening to score.

Most football movies beg the question: what's wrong with defense? Is the work of the defensive line not a drama worthy of exploring? There are films, Sam Raimi's For Love of the Game chief among them, that dramatize the defense in baseball. This is probably more palatable because it is about one man on a mound facing down the odds, an American tale of individual accomplishment. The defensive line doesn't have this same focus-- no quarterback, no pitcher, just an apparently interchangeable mass of bodies. But what is the drama of wondering whether a pitcher will pull off that most supererogatory of feats, the perfect game, to the entire outcome of a game placed on the shoulders of a few tackles?

Imagine the scene: throughout the whole movie, the opposing team's quarterback has been built up as an unstoppable force. Possibly he had been injured, and the team was relieved that they wouldn't have to face him. But in the final minutes of the game, our heroes up by one or two scant points, with the opposing team having made an incredible play to reach first and goal, he emerges-- fresh from rehab and possibly not at the top of his game, but still a terrifying presence. Possibly this happened right before the big play, thereby demonstrating that, despite our hopes, the QB is in full possession of his earlier abilities.

Now our plucky defense has to hold the line for four full downs. Even if they succeed for three, they will still have to face a point-blank field goal attempt. This is a situation rife with tension and drama! Why has it never been done? You could say that the outcome is entirely predictable, sure, but how is that any different from any other sports-based movie?

Clearly, the answer has at least something to do with the (literally) goal-oriented nature of sports, and certainly of the American attitude toward sports (see also: American antipathy toward soccer and its single-digit scores). The time-honored tradition of the underdog making good can only be fully satisfied by a come-from-behind victory. A nod here can be made to Dan Clowes' Freudian analysis of sport-- one doesn't want to side with the forbidding father of the Oedipal Triangle. Ideally, in other words, you want to be rooting for something rather than its prevention... but how true is that to the actual experience of rooting for a team? A game is exciting when your team is behind, tense and uneasy when they're ahead. Both are vital aspects of the thrill of sport, but one has been largely left unexplored.
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