Why sports movies are the best at telling stories
Published on 4th March 2016
I remember pretty distinctly being told in a school English lesson when I was probably about fifteen that an Early Modern audience watching Macbeth would likely have known everything that was going to happen.
They’d have been standing there in the Globe eating raw turnips and casually exchanging STDs and gambling over gladiatorial crabs, while watching, or more probably listening, to Macbeth go on about how guilty he feels about whatever awful thing he's just done (I never really got into Macbeth so forgive me if this is totally wrong) and they’d all be thinking “yeh you bet Macbeth, and now you’re about to do something even worse, just wait till - hey! no lobsters allowed!”
Anyway, at the time this idea struck me as insane. Why would you go to the theatre, or get involved in any kind of story with a plot and so on, if you knew how it was going to end?
Isn’t the whole point that you’re sitting there gagging to know if Romeo and Juliet are gonna hook up and live happily ever after? Where’s the oomph if you know Othello’s gonna kick his own bucket in what must surely remain the single most badass instance of self-bucket-kicking committed to writing?
However, as I grew wiser and older, and at nearly 24 I’m obviously extremely wise and old, I realised that this is true of most films I go and see at the cinema – films in general are predictable to the point of foreknown and all that’s changed is the regrettable decline of crab battling. How often are you actually surprised by the resolution of a plot? How often do you sincerely wonder if James Bond is going to be okay?
Films committed to pulling the popcorn graveyard out from under our cinema seats are few and far between.
So the attraction movies hold for us doesn’t seem to lie in the ingenuity of the plots. This is reasonably obvious I guess, except that when pressed I think it reveals just how un-mystical popular entertainment really is.
What we’re seeking, like our root vegetable-munching forebears, is to be dazzled at how a story is told, not what the story is.
And it’s via this somewhat long-winded route that I propose sports films are the best and most reliable genre for telling stories in film.
This is because sports provide an extremely effective vessel for all the important stuff – conflict, choice, consequence etc – and paradoxically aren’t ever much about sport as a result, which is good because it’s humans we’re concerned with, not their occupations. Imagine if a WWII film was all about the clerical banalities of arranging ammunition, rather than suffering and courage and stuff.
Sports excel because they facilitate the high-contrast binary of victory and defeat; they make recognisable but immense physical and psychological demands on characters; they have plenty of familiar cultural and social capital; they can typically provide a metric shit-tonne of eyeball-whopping visual spectacle.
Predominantly though, it’s the simple fact that they offer a scaffold to organise narrative in a discrete way to contain human struggles (usually via a tournament or competition, and of course the arbitrary rules of the sport itself) against a rival (Karate Kid), society (Invictus), expectations (Moneyball), conventions (Coach Carter), your family (Foxcatcher), your body (The Wrestler), yourself (Rocky/Creed/The Fighter/Raging Bull).
That Shakespeare chap was on to something: who cares what Macbeth does? I want to know what he feels about it… that it’s full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, apparently. Jeez, chill out Maccy-B. Here, have an onion and let’s see whose crab is truly the greatest crustacean of them all.
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