Monday, January 19, 2015

Foxcatcher, Sports, Brotherhood

A few years ago, ESPN columnist Bill Simmons said the idea of sports movies was dead because they had ground the cliche underdog storyline into the ground. Hollywood has a hard time just doing a movie without the underdog gimmick. Foxcatcher is a tremendous sports movie that tricks audiences into thinking it is not a sports movie. Wikipedia lists it as a biographical drama. True, but this is a sports movie. This movie does focus on the Schultz wrestling brothers and the quirky John Du Pont who ended up killing the elder Shultz, David. This is not the 1999 Du Pont murder covered by Dominick Dunne. It is the other '90s Du Pont murder (Du Pont mayhem). This is an entertaining film that is well done and is sneaky enough to keep SWPLs in the seats despite being a great sports movie.

The film is well paced, has great sound mixing (a problem more and more I find in new films), and great acting from Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz and Steve Carell as John Du Pont. The sports sequences were shot with a variety of angles and shot selection so you don't suffer a headache watching "jerky-cam" cinematography. Channing Tatum gets to play the beefy brother who is a gold medalist yet still in his older brother's shadow. I enjoyed the contrast of Tatum's wrestler walk with Ruffalo's wrestler walk. If Carell is using this as he way to transition to drama, he did a tremendous job. Watching his portrayal of the millionaire, you never quite know if it's a touch of autism, eccentricity, or just the bubble of his upbringing that has made him as awkward with people. This is a dramatization, so we do not know if he was just a patriotic man who was a bit weird with people or Hollywood turning him a bit more into a villain. Some people in the audience I was a part of did not know the ending of this true life crime drama so they jumped and gasped at the shooting at the end. This audience might have been a bit heavy on the SWPL side as every instance of someone getting hit hard, whether when wrestling, the MMA telecast or the shooting, the audience reacted as if it was shocking. Oh my God, violence! How unaccustomed to violence the Eloi have become. It is a good film, and I recommend it on technical reasons alone. The other clue to the SWPL audience were the previews: period piece, period piece, period piece, foreign film and Julianne Moore Oscar bait flick (early onset Alzheimer's).

If you played sports, especially if you played beyond youth leagues well into high school or college, you will love the sports side of the film. The movie starts with Mark Schultz (Tatum) giving a speech about winning a gold in the '84 Olympics and cites the "virtues" it takes to win the medal. A nice touch was that after simple shots of Mark living his ho-hum life despite being a gold medalist, Tatum goes to practice with his brother. They go through the warm ups and grappling one would expect. The added touch is that they just chat as brothers and friends do. The brother relationship is a wonderful thing throughout this movie, because as with so many athletes, someone else introduced you to the sport. Someone first said, "let's go play catch". Usually, it is a father, a brother, a cousin or an uncle. Someone has a relationship with you that then the sport becomes a part of, for better and worse. The shadow of his brother aspect was a fun dynamic to the film. Mark's "little brother" desire to strike out on his own, win on his own, and be his own man is a common young male desire. The fact that he does well on his own but then allows himself to be corrupted by Du Pont is a great transition. Small changes. Once big brother shows up, he still acts defiant. This all comes crashing down at the Olympic trials.

At the trials, there is the strongest scene, which is right after World Champion Mark loses his first match. In his hotel room, he does the angry jock routine and ends up crying by himself. An individual sport does offer the benefit of being measured by a clock or one opponent and solitary glory, but it places all the responsibility on you alone. When you fail, you are the cause. Mark binges on a buffet of treats after his match and is lying alone when his brother, Dave, breaks into the room and holds him. "We can do this". Then you see the underside of what gets it done. Gotta drop weight, so start by throwing up that food. Gotta drop weight, so sweat the water away. Don't stop. Tatum's Davis sticking his finger down his throat to purge the food with his brother helping him along was part of the game. People won't blink over the men and teenage boys who throw up to cut weight because that's the deal, but they will react with pity at Natalie Portman portraying a bulimic in Black Swan. Those moments do not make it into the speeches to elementary schoolchildren. Du Pont wants to see his pet project win for glory. Does he qualify for the Olympics? Yes. Do the brothers reach an understanding? Yes. If you were an athlete, there has been a moment where you got mad with yourself. It made you eat better for the next season, train a bit harder, and get your ass out there in the cold for conditioning no matter what the temperature was. If you were lucky, there has been a time where someone else reminded you and helped you. Maybe it was a relative, and they have a history with you so you hear a phrase along the lines of, "You can lie to them, but you ain't foolin' me". I loved that relationship in this movie, because everyone who played a sport for a decade or so has that brother, father, uncle or friend. Get in there, you can do this.

This is fuel to many an athlete's fire. There is the person, or people, who knocked you down, called you worthless or worse. You hit the weights. You hit the bag. You spend an extra hour dribbling, hitting or swimming just to shut them up. Building drive on anger and hate would burn a person up. There is also the person who believes in you. They work with you, or act as your last resort support. There is one person you know will be there clapping loudest for you when you need it. Often now, Hollywood pumps out sports thing with the psychotic father and kid who feels crazy pressure to perform and be a man. For every instance of that, there is the "You can do this. I have faith in you," bond through sports. Ruffalo's portrayal of a loving older brother was great to watch, as every athlete has that one person.

The flip side to this is Carell's Du Pont and modern sports fandom. The movie portrays Du Pont as trying to use Mark Davis and wrestling at first to help create heroes in a nation needing them, and later, for his own ego and need for accomplishment and glory. Money talks but money does not solve everything for Du Pont. I could hear the snickers and snorts at different Du Pont goofball antics, pushing his involvement with wrestling despite not truly being involved. I hope they don't have any sports jerseys at home. It was a SWPL crowd, so most likely not, but the portrayal of Du Pont is just an extreme version of what sports fandom has become. The support for an individual athlete, by grown men, from favorite player to weird wish fulfillment to weird non-sexual same sex crush to really weird blurring of lines in existence as well as sexual. This is best exemplified by mailbag columns by ESPN columnist Bill Simmons. The questions regarding athletes, would you sleep with one if you had to, would you let them sleep with your wife, who has the best life, etc. have devolved over the fifteen years Simmons has been writing at ESPN. When I attend NFL games, I look at the adult jersey wearers and squint a little harder at them. What's their motivation? It is weirder now. Du Pont's need to be one of the boys, while portrayed weird in the film, is not so different from the average fan in 2015.

Just one moment to discuss the mentions of an implied gay relationship between Schultz and Du Pont. If a reviewer inferred this, they are obviously one of those gays that looks for gay in everything. Grow up and stop being narcissistic. In reality, the reviewer might be a bit bigoted against gays if they think because an older, loner type befriends a younger loner and they do coke together means it was a gay relationship. What is the reviewer saying? That short shorts and cocaine use automatically implies gay? The old rich guys prey on loner types who are buff and much younger? That borders on some unintentional thought crime there progressive reviewers. The '80s were full of short shorts for male athletes, and plenty of straight guys did coke in the '80s. Men have friendships. Older men often become father figures to younger men, and the film stresses that between these two men. Stop desperately looking for gayness everywhere.

Foxcatcher works because it ties all of the identity issues and personal items well within a simple eighteen month time frame for a wrestler. The Olympic element adds fun to it because of the hypocrisy that the Olympics, drug free and amateur, have become. The Olympics announcing it would drop wrestling for 2020, but then bringing it back due to US, Russian and Iranian pressure shows the ludicrous nature of the even. Wrestling harkens back to the Greek original Olympics, yet we get ping pong as a sport now. Ever seen a gold medal or met a gold medalist? Du Pont introduces Mark to the black tie event attendees with that line. It does have a certain cachet. There is something magical to holding a gold medal. At one moment, that person was best in the world. Years ago, at a track camp, I got to meet Dick Fosbury. Late in the week, I had lunch a little late after a session, and saw him eating a late lunch and peering at a book. I could pick the brain of the guy who reinvented an entire sport, high jump. I walked over and asked if I could join him and talk. We talked about the mental game of preparation and competing. He mentioned singing "Da doo run run" chorus under his breath to calm down throughout the '60s. I asked him about changing how millions of people do the high jump forever. He started the flop as a fluke of sorts, and never expected the world to go along with it. His hours of practice were compounded by doing something no one else knew how would work or should work. A day later, he brought his medal out for the training session I was in, and everyone was in awe. I remember holding it, and thinking of his story. His story gave that medal weight. it made me think that while unique, all medals have their story*.

You may not be a sports fan. You may not have been an athlete. This film will still work for you. Even the Academy is recognizing the performances in this film. Some moments are legitimately spooky in that you wait for something to happen, amplified byt he fact that Tatum is the brooding, silent wrestler and Carell is the eccentric, awkward father figure. While Carell puts on a great dramatic performance, there is still a funny Carell moment in the helicopter. You'll know it when you see it. Enjoy the '80s touches, enjoy another great Mark Ruffalo performance and enjoy a well done film. For a Hollywood product, the film was lacking overt prog ideology stuffing. It was a bit refreshing to watch. Hollywood is not cranking out too many of those anymore.

* This is why I hate the current Olympic drug testing regime. Either let them use everything but make it known to everyone else, including the audience or go zero tolerance.


peterike said...

This audience might have been a bit heavy on the SWPL side as every instance of someone getting hit hard, whether when wrestling, the MMA telecast or the shooting, the audience reacted as if it was shocking.

Heh. That reminds me of when I went to see "Boyhood" in an arthouse theater, where the crowd is mostly older Jewish people (aka Liberals). When the grandfather gave the teenage boy a rifle for Christmas, there were audible gasps and grumblings of disapproval throughout the audience. Shocking! A boy in Texas got a GUN for a present!!

It's really amazing how provincial Liberal "sophisticates" are, but oh well.

As for "Foxcatcher," I'll probably catch it when it makes the Netflix route. Seems pretty good.

Suburban_elk said...

The place of sports in the development of character cannot be overstated, but it has the slight problem of not dealing with the 80% or so of the kids who do not make the team.

And yeah that's a funny joke and one can pick and laugh on them from this elevated seat in the winner's circle, but it is not so funny when they shoot up the mall or the movie theatre (hypothetically).

Another pretty good point, on what i have dubbed the cult of the athlete. Around these parts - and obviously every elsewhere in the world, but especially around here - it is all Cult of the Athlete, all the time.

And i don't mean to suggest that that is not how it should be, or that we need substitute matron mommies on the playground to prevent bullying, because that is not what i am suggesting, but i would like to suggest - and as i have said before, at iSteve in one of the comments that would be linked from my last post on the previous thread - that athletics in high school substituted in for a rite of passage but it does not do the job for most of the young boys, because they are not involved in athletics because they did not make the team or even go out for it.

People complain all the time about millennials and hipsters and swapples and how they are effeminate and soft, but what was their rite of passage, in which they were supposed to be transformed into men. Of course there was no rite of passage for them. Their fathers neglected that for them. Some of them get to learn it on the street, and good for them, it has been great fun.