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Review: This Sporting Life

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This Sporting Life

Working class thug Frank Machin (Richard Harris) turns a dance club brawl into a tryout with the city rugby team, where he earns enough success, wealth, and fame to soothe the aching heart of the widow with whom he lodges, Margaret Hammond (Rachel Roberts). But Frank’s brashness in life and violence in showing his all-consuming love for Margaret—not to mention Margaret’s rare strength and ability to see past Frank’s flattery and understand that she is little more than another brutish conquest for him—leaves Frank alone, playing a game as dirty, hollow, and unrewarding as his previous jobs in the coal mines of northern England.

Forty years after its release, This Sporting Life seems an anomaly: sports champion as anti-hero, where the sport itself represents working class life and is directly equated with working in the dirt, and a player is accused of doing nothing for the exorbitant amount of money he earns (well, that last bit’s not so unknown). Like all of the best sports movies, the film is not about the record of the team or the success of the character as an athlete, but rather about the qualities of the person who exists as a result of the game. In this way, This Sporting Life is a quintessential entrant in Britain’s kitchen-sink realism of the late-‘50s and ‘60s, by one of the era’s finest directors, produced by Karel Reisz (who directed one of the cornerstones of the genre, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), and packed to stadium capacity with all the tenets of that artistic movement: a lower-class North England setting, crowded houses, domestic violence, sport and jazz used as symbols of the ragged life, abrasively nonlinear narratives that feature angry but consistently talented young men who are haunted by a cycle of bad memories and seemingly cold, unattainable women.

The shining difference here is that the “angry young man” is, in fact, old, closer to Richard Burton’s jazz trumpet playing stiff Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger but a generation removed from kitchen-sink’s other athletic figurehead, Tom Courtenay, engaged in a far more stately pursuit in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Unlike these filmic peers, who long to get out of the north, Frank Machin’s reason for living is the promise of a seemingly respectable home life with Margaret; his sharp edges soften to nothing in his games with the widow’s two kids, and it’s his interaction with them that begins to turn Margaret’s feelings. Anderson turns this somewhat familiar situation into a raw and exhaustive repression of feeling. Harris is explosive in the breakout role, converting his experience as a talented junior rugby player into his first Oscar nomination.

He brings to Frank the constant expectation of violence, especially against the quiet articulation of Robert’s own masterful performance. More important is his tender big-heartedness, which suggests that if life had thrown him a few more breaks, he’d be among the best of his generation. This same complexity accompanies many of British New Wave’s leading men, as well as athlete protagonists in American cinema just a few years earlier, including The Hustler and On the Waterfront. More than a little Waterfront Brando exists in this story, in several of the many quotable lines—“You’re so big, Frank, you’re so stupid, you don’t give me a chance”—and when Frank, six front teeth smashed after taking a punch on the field, must mumble through his lips. But the film, complete with Denys Coop’s exhilarating shooting during the rugby matches, is all England, and a hallmark of what is still one of cinema’s most endearing movements.

Cast: Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, William Hartnell, Colin Blakely, Vanda Godsell, Jack Watson, Arthur Lowe Director: Lindsay Anderson Screenwriter: David Storey Distributor: Continental Motion Pictures Corporation Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Buy: Video

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Film

Review: The Competition Patiently Looks Inside an Iconic Film School

Claire Simon knows that the best way to capture the anxiousness of a moment is to leave it unembellished.

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The Competition
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form.

The competition here progresses from an auditorium room with hundreds of young people writing an analytical essay on a film sequence for three hours into a complex tapestry of human interactions between cinema professionals who interview and run workshops with young candidates, and later deliberate. These professionals, who are both male and female and mostly white, seem profoundly invested in the process, as though they were hiring a crew to work on their personal projects. They are, in reality, helping shape French cinema for decades to come, and cinema history writ large. Alumi from La Fémis include Claire Denis, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Arnaud Desplechin, André Téchiné, and François Ozon.

While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs.

This is curatorial practice of the highest order, too, on Simon’s part, and a meta one at that. Is this not what good cinema, the cinema that La Fémis’s most famous alumni have produced, is about? A cinema that refuses the imposition of meaning and facile interpretation? But Simon does pay a price for her commitment to little interference. In a sea of white professionals interviewing white would-be students, we keep waiting for the race question to emerge in The Competition. Not as the cynical aside by a panelist who says choosing one black, one Asian, and one Arabic student would make the administration happy, especially if the students are poor, but some kind of subtle editorial underscoring of the absence of anything that isn’t bourgeois—a formatting too naturalized for most in the film to see.

When we finally see a black candidate from the Ivory Coast, the daughter of political refugees, recounting her precarious background to two committee members, she’s unable to name the title of a single film that she likes. She thinks and thinks, and the camera lingers, very much consistent with its behavior up to that point—a dynamic that seems to work against the candidate, whose prolonged silence turns her into a humiliated object. In an act of either courage or cluelessness, she says that she can’t even remember the last time she went to the movies. Were she one of the many comely bourgeois French boys that seem to win over the interviewers for no logical reason, her unvarnished spontaneity may have been forgiven as a cute moment of panic. Instead, the women interviewing the girl are horrified that that she can’t come up with the title of a film (not even Titanic), and as they move on to the next task at hand, it’s as if the girl’s history of violence, and fearlessness, counts for nothing.

Director: Claire Simon Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 2016

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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