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This Sporting Life

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The Busher
Battling Butler
The Brave One
Cowards Bend the Knee
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
Romeo and Juliet Get Married
Cerro Pelado
Sosueme
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Though I’m not much of a sports fan myself, I love a good movie about America’s favorite pastimes. The longueurs of baseball, the staccato rhythms of football, the blood spatter of a boxing match are, in my opinion, so much more watchable when mediated by a carefully placed movie camera, a well-crafted script and a decisive edit. Sports stories either about a team’s glories or an individual’s rise and fall lend themselves easily to the feature film’s narrative arc. Sports metaphors and clichés require only an oblique reference to be immediately understood and have become a kind of shorthand to convey character or circumstances. Just imagine On the Waterfront if Terry Malloy could not have been a contender or if John Doe hadn’t washed up from the baseball diamond. Think how differently you’d feel about the Dude if his friends played tennis rather than bowled. Athleticism, too, has been written into cinema’s stories since its beginnings, from Keystone car chases to drag-racing teenagers, from mast-swinging swashbucklers to the horsemanship of cowboys and debutantes.

By Shari Kizirian

The Busher

(1919) directed by Jerome Stern, 55 minutes

As this 1919 film shows, the conventions of the baseball movie were well established in the silent era. A pitcher in a small town is discovered when a stranded ball club passes the time with an impromptu matchup. The “busher” (played by Charles Ray) has “more curves than a stovepipe” and strikes out a major league slugger with ease, earning not just hometown glory but also a chance at the “show.” Nuke LaLoosh and Crash Davis wrapped into one, he is quickly corrupted by the big city and must relearn his hometown values to win back his girl, played by a pre-bob Colleen Moore. (The real-life Bull Durham, né Louis J. Durham also makes an appearance. Can anybody out there identify him?) There’s a fair-weather city girl and a reference to corrupt players who wink-wink at a reference to illegal gambling. (This is the year the Black Sox threw the World Series, though the scandal wouldn’t erupt until the following fall.) There’s also a rival for his sweetheart played by a dandified and pre-mustachioed John Gilbert, who learns the most time-honored lesson in baseball movie history: never bet against the home team.

Battling Butler

(1925) directed by Buster Keaton, 76 minutes

Edison employee W.K.L. Dickinson once mused to a colleague about a moneymaking device “which could be made to show cheaply the final punch and knockout of a prizefight.” Since then the ancient blood sport has yielded some of the screen’s most indelible dramas, from The Champ to Rocky, from Body and Soul to Raging Bull. Buster Keaton’s 1926 Battling Butler showcases the subgenre as a fertile source of sidesplitting comedy. While rich in the Great Stone Face’s deadpans and smoothly executed gags, the film’s up-close fight scenes are what inspired Martin Scorsese to put his camera in Jake La Motta’s face. Keaton, he said, is “the only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies for me.” In it, he plays an effete heir sent on a camping trip to toughen up. When stray buckshot perforates a lady’s handkerchief—the meet-cute made hilariously violent—the heart of the film begins to pump. For me, the sugar-free poignancies of Battling Butler are what make the film among Keaton’s best. A couple on their first date draw physically and metaphorically closer as a tent-side table sinks into the soft ground, a reluctant goodbye is framed in the oval rear windshield of a speeding car, and a final dolly shot is heartwarming and humorous in equal measure as the boy gets the girl he has so valiantly earned.

The Brave One

(1956) directed by Irving Rapper, 100 minutes

Bullfighting is either cultural heritage worthy of preservation or the cruelest thing humans do to animals in public. Movies about bullfighting usually take a side. The rise and fall of Rudolph Valentino’s torero in Blood and Sand is interspersed with title-card length treatises on the immorality of the sport. The widely praised Blancanieves uses silent-era aesthetics to restore Hemingway-endorsed glory to the spectacle, while modernizing it with a female behind the cape. The Brave One, made a year before The Sun Also Rises, aligns its sympathies with a young boy trying to save his beloved pet bull from a gruesome fate and, at the same time, displays tauromachian pageantry and cruelty in stunning Cinemascope. Dalton Trumbo wrote the Academy Award-winning script during his Mexican exile after seeing his first bullfight end in a botched kill. The freshly blacklisted screenwriter had just turned down an offer to adapt Salt of the Earth (telling director Biberman he was uninterested “in pamphlets, speeches or progressive movie-making”) but still works in few civics lessons alongside the crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking appeal. In the hands of Now Voyager director Irving Rapper, the movie also demonstrates the undeniable artistry of bullfighting with gasp-inducing low angles. True to Trumbo’s politics, however, the heroics are not the matador’s, the bull’s nor even the boy’s. The people save the day, raising their collective voice to finally do the right thing.

Cowards Bend the Knee

(2004) directed by Guy Maddin, 64 minutes

Silent-era aesthetics are a trademark of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s work. Often shot on black-and-white stock or tinted in the sepias, yellows, cyans, and magentas ubiquitous in the initial two decades of cinema, his films employ the gesture-heavy pantomime acting of early movies and the photography and editing effects of the 1920s European avant-garde. Skewed camera angles, subjective shots, extreme soft-focus, kaleidoscope superimpositions, iris shots, and the blown-out halo artifacts of amateur or poorly preserved works are all on ample display in Cowards Bend the Knee , originally shot for a peephole installation. The storyline is simultaneously fantastical (a dead girlfriend returns as an incarnate ghost) and paperback pulpy (Matricide! Incest!) yet wields the melodramatic power of a Sirk film to elicit real emotion. That it’s largely set in a hockey rink with hockey-player protagonists seems beside the point, but Maddin’s affection for the sport and his hometown team is apparent. Heroes (though waxen) are revivified and revered, and the muffled scratching of pucks and blades across the ice is as nostalgia inducing as the needle skating across a phonograph record or the radio static of announced games.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

(2008) directed by Kevin Rafferty, 104 minutes

Kevin Rafferty’s 2008 documentary is built from beautifully textured color footage of the November 1968 Harvard-Yale football game intercut with recent interviews of teammates from the opposing sides. We know the final score going in, and many of the players acknowledge that the game hardly mattered in the long play of their lives. Still, Rafferty creates a suspenseful retelling, collapsing time in-between the relevant action. As dramatic as it is, the game takes its wider significance from the memories recalled during interviews. Yale was one year from becoming coed and the sexual revolution was in full swing. Vietnam vets play alongside SDS members protesting the war. Garry Trudeau’s comic strip based on Yale quarterback Brian Dowling (B.D.) had debuted that September. Rafferty, whose other director credits include The Atomic Café, told the New York Times that even as “luminaries” like Teddy Kennedy (less than six months after Bobby’s assassination) could be found in the stands, he wanted to tell the story exclusively through the players’ testimony. Years later, each down, flag, fumble, touchdown and tackle are still fresh in their minds. As the final decisive seconds approach, the players from both teams get caught up once again in the agonies and ecstasies of that autumn afternoon.

Romeo and Juliet Get Married

(2005) directed by Bruno Barreto, 91 minutes

Despite the popular Bend It Like Beckham and the mesmerizing Zidane, passion for the bright green pitch remains foreign to Americans. Brazilian director Bruno Barreto had already mined soccer for laughs in 2000’s Bossa Nova, which featured a supporting character learning English so he can accurately spit invectives on an international playing field. In this story about two rabid soccer fans who fall for each other, Barreto provides some universality maybe even Americans can share by adapting the story of literature’s best-known feud. Trouble rises to Capulet-and-Montague proportions because the lovers-at-first-sight are loyal to rival teams. This 2005 film captures the intensity of emotion most of the world feels toward football, particularly in the soap-operatic passion displayed by Juliet’s father and Romeo’s materfamilias, his grandmother. Mostly it’s funny because it’s true, and Barreto turns Shakespearean tragedy into comedy, concocting misunderstandings that don’t need to end in swordfights or suicide. After much ado about everything, the balcony scene, arriving late in the film, seems to happen accidentally. It’s a masterful moment of adaptation with Romeo declaring Juliet the sun using only his eyes.

Cerro Pelado

(1966) directed by Santiago Alvarez, 35 minutes

Politics and athletics probably shouldn’t mix but it can be a boon for filmmaking when they do. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia revolutionized documentary filmmaking and recorded for posterity Jesse Owens’s achievements in Berlin. The Chinese created an entire subgenre glorifying the physically fit with popular fare like Queen of Sports, which teaches health and hygiene, sportsmanship and nationalism all at once. Muhammad Ali and George Foreman rumbled in the jungle under the auspices of notorious U.S.-backed dictator Mobuto Sese Seko in 1996’s When We Were Kings. Santiago Álvarez, master propagandist of Cuba’s socialist revolution, was along for the boat ride when the U.S. Coast Guard prohibited his country’s delegation to the 1966 Central American and Caribbean Games from docking in Puerto Rico, the host site. True to his Soviet montage filmmaking style, Álvarez delivers the necessary information using quick cutting of news photography, title cards (in five languages), and newspaper headlines. Without a moment of synchronized sound, he makes his political point very clear, never losing sight of what’s important about the whole confrontation: that the athletes are allowed to compete. He shoots in handheld 16mm, sometimes from dizzying vantages, the beauty and power of the athletes as they practice aboard ship during the voyage. Shot putters, javelin throwers, marksmen, runners, boxers all rehearsing their respective dances on ship’s deck timed to Afro-Caribbean rhythms. It might be the most joyful celebration of athletic form on film.

Sosueme

(1982) directed by Rock Ross, 6 minutes

Surfing is the one sport a movie might inspire me to rise from my comfortable seat and try. The majesty of the water, the grace of the surfer, and the synchronicity of a well-ridden wave appear to offer an experience worth having, when it goes right. Every surfing movie I’ve ever seen reinforces this allure. Stripped of the transparent blues and greens of the ocean so prized in traditional surfing movies and with each rider rendered in black silhouettes on undulating boards, this experimental film allows viewers to imagine themselves catching the waves. Borrowing footage from Bill Delaney (director of Surfers: The Movie) and underwater photography specialist Dan Merkel, Rock Ross slows it all down, timing it to the remixed crescendos of a Puccini opera and prolonging the satisfying sensation of shooting the curl.