MOTIVE: Moving Bodies, Moving Images - Sports and Beyond

The movement of human bodies has fascinated cinema since its earliest beginnings; indeed, the spectacle and attraction of bodies in motion became an important motif in early motion pictures. And nowhere else but in sporting competitions human bodies can be seen in such extraordinary, albeit nonetheless rule-bound states of heightened mobility and action. Consequently, many pioneers of cinematography tried to show what had never been seen before: moving images of moving bodies – doing sports. While the early cinematographic apparatus might have had difficulties capturing the space and speed of team and outdoor sports, representations of boxing fights, for example, gained a wide popularity. Film historian Luke McKennan even claims that the first-ever commercial film projection was that of a boxing match. The movement of bodies, magnified, anatomized and highlighted on the silver screen, as well as the simple win-or-lose plot of most sporting events, together with the popularity of sport stars, offered attractive entertainment to win an audience for the emerging cinema.

However, film’s relation to sport soon became a troubled one. After an early phase of a cinema of pure attractions, the more regulated cinematic world of feature films, newsreels and documentaries that developed in the 1920s and ’30s had to find new ways of dealing with sports. Simply recording an event was no longer enough for a more demanding audience. Instead, sport had to be transformed in order to meet the demands of modern cinema.

One way to do this was to deal with sport in the newly forming genre of the documentary; however, if cinema approaches sport in a documentary mode, it is always too late. For those who enjoy watching sports, the uncertain outcome of the live event, the apprehension in the face of contingency is the main attraction. What we enjoy when we watch sport is that we never really know what will happen. During the week, factors of predictability might rule: tactical acumen, physical fitness, statistics etc. are discussed in newspapers (and today on TV and the internet) in order make the outcome of the next match more foreseeable;we discuss endlessly who should, according to all relevant factors, win. When Saturday comes, however, this predictability is suspended for another ninety minutes or so: on the pitch, everything might happen. Documentaries may succeed in looking behind the scenes of great sporting events, reveal economic and political investments, or show personal hardships that had to be overcome. But they can rarely capture the essence of sport: the feeling of absolute presence, the presence of bodies and forms, and the contingency that comes with it. As a second option, fiction films with a sporting topic encounter similar problems. Although they are free to invent new challenges, and consequently are able to emotionally involve the viewer in the enfolding event, the outcome of the event is never as open as it is in sport itself. Instead, the outcome of the sporting event is almost always subject to the dramatic plot of the film: when it comes to the match, the fight or the race, we know what’s to happen, and we know that Rocky won’t lose that final fight. At least after the fight is over, or the match is played, the sporting event has to reveal its narrative sense: rewarding the protagonist, or teaching him or her a lesson. In sport, some matches just don’t make sense; in fiction, however, the sporting event becomes a mere vehicle for the development of a character, or a plot.

However, while cinema encounters profound problems when it comes to representing the world’s leading form of entertainment, sport is by no means lost to the audio-visual medium. Television soon inherited sports and their popularity from the early cinema. Both sports and TV benefit from this close relation: while football, soccer, and other popular sports earn immense sums from selling broadcasting rights, TV stations can sell a thirty-second ad during Super Bowl for up to $4 million. Sport films, be they documentary or fictional, can only dream of such revenues, and financially successful sport feature films are as difficult to find as those that are successful in cinematic terms.

Indeed, sport and cinema face a real dilemma: if an audio-visual representation of sport succeeds, it is not to be about sport at all, but about people and circumstances; if it is about sport itself, it is television material. Our special programme about moving bodies and moving images endeavours to probe whether short films can escape this predicament. Short films might offer new possibilities to look at the bodies, the passions and politics involved and invested in sports. Consequently, the films chosen for this special programme have been selected because they tell us something about sport, because they use their cinematographic means to help us understand sport’s fascination. The films chosen cover a great variety of disciplines, ranging from rugby and football to equestrianism and rock climbing, they come from various regions of the world, including Thailand, Sierra Leone, Australia, France and Germany, and they span almost the entire history of the cinema, from celluloid prints of the early twentieth- century to digital productions of today. The selection of films is presented according to three core aspects of sport: teams, struggle, and belonging.

Guests: Åse Fougner, Sybil H. Mair et al.

Film Selection: Christian Huck

Motive 1: Team

More often than not, sport is not practiced alone, but in a team. In order to be successful, the team has to be more than the sum of its parts; the members of a team have to supplement their strengths and weaknesses, they have to put their own interest to one side and act in the interest of a single, common cause. ›Comme un seul homme‹ meditates on how a team comes together. The film shows a band of rugby players preparing for a match; by putting on their match uniform, by preparing their bodies with tapes and oils, by heating themselves up both physically and mentally, the individuals seem to be stripped of their mundane selves and are turned into a collective body ready to strike. ›Laker McChampions: a Lakers Scrapbook‹ presents the aesthetic form that emerges when talented individuals interact as a team; scenes from several seasons of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team are cut to the beat of a jazz tune, showing unbelievable and wholly unpredictable moves of corporeal collectivity. When the opposing team seems too superior to be beaten, morale within the team is often low; ›Du poil de la bête‹ gives a fictional account of how a team breaks apart under such conditions, and how, against all odds, the manager of a female football team achieves to rebuild the team – on the basis of fiction. ›The Saturday Men‹ provides a rare insight into the strains under which a professional football team has to exist; filmed at the beginning of the commercialisation process that has changed the face of many modern sports, the film shows how professionalization strengthens the team by providing better training grounds and methods, by freeing the players from other responsibilities and giving them some extra motivation; but it also shows how it severs traditional ties, to fellow players and to the wider community. In ›One Goal‹, the power of the team is able to overcome individual handicaps, quite literally; the film shows amputees of the Sierra Leone civil war finding new strength in the company of a newly founded football league.

Motive 2: Struggle

Sport is not only about the controlled movement of the body; sport is first and foremost about winning a competition through the training and application of one’s physical prowess and skill. As a form of game, sport provides strict rules to determine the end and the winner of a corporeal competition; by providing such a clear-cut frame, sport allows its practitioners to know exactly what it takes to win, and more importantly, who or what has to be beaten in order to win. Something that, in real life, is rarely that obvious. As the films in this section show, what has to be beaten, what has to be overcome are the limitations of one’s own corporeality, of one’s own body and self, more so even than one’s actual opponent. In ›The Equestrian‹, the struggle for gaining full control over one’s own destiny is presented as a fight between a horse and its rider; the uncontrollability of one’s own body is given form by a subordinate that becomes an opponent. ›Ride for Your Life‹ shows the limits a motorcycle racer encounters and tries to overcome. A brief look at what it takes to turn one’s (footballing) potential into a successful career is allowed by ›Mesut, 17‹, in which Grimme prize-winner Aljoscha Pause turns archive material from a youth competition into a portray of a talented player with great ambitions, but whose eyes cannot hide the fear of not living up to what others, and oneself, demand. Rock climbing is one of the more obvious metaphors for showing that overcoming physical obstacles is always also a case of overcoming barriers of the mind; ›Na Pogled‹, a production set within the sublime scenery of the Julian Alps, provides a fascinating twist to this story. Total control of the body is also the aim of ballet. ›Stå på tå‹ shows the hard work students of an elite ballet school put into their career, and how the loss of control over the body becomes a failure hard to accept.

Motive 3: Belonging

Sport offers ways of feeling a sense of belonging that other, less corporeal aspects of modern life might not. Such a sense of belonging can involve not only those that practice a sport, but also those that support it. Often, the central motive to participate in sport is to physically experience a collectivity that transcends the limits of one’s own individuality. Ken Loach’s ›Happy Ending‹ puts the bodily experience of collective joy that sport allows us to have in straight opposition to cinema’s more intellectual demands. Following the pleasures of supporting, ›Deplase Keyifler‹ portrays the special feeling a football derby can induce. ›Panyee FC‹ shows how sport can make those practicing it feel a sense of belonging in a very literal sense: a remote island community discovers playing football as a means of building bridges to the mainland. The distinction between fans and players, between consumption and performance, is crossed in the act of betting, which turns the onlooker into a participant; based on sports central feature of contingency, betting multiplies the tensions between an open outcome and the skills to predict a winner. While ›A Day at the Races… with the Paddock Tree Gang‹ portrays betting as a harmless addition to enjoying horse racing, ›La Gran Carrera‹ reveals a more sinister side of such emotional investment. And while ›The Sweater‹ deals with the specific importance that following and emulating the right team has for adolescents especially, both ›Aldrig för sent – gympagrupp 90+‹ and ›Team Spirit‹ show that neither practicing nor following sports is a privilege of the young.

Motive 4: Bodies and Minds on the Move

Among many other things, Winston Churchill is famous for declaiming »No Sports« amidst cigar smoke and whiskey vapours. My arse! He loved sports! And so do we! Athletic bodies have been moving through beautiful imageries since the beginning of motion pictures, while audiences have been chasing after sporting sensations and every one of us has been fighting daily battles with ourselves since time immemorial. Some films take the mickey out of physical exercises in hilarious parodies (›Love Sports‹), while others turn them into a cinematic and experimental synonym for a whole attitude towards life. Some films sensually celebrate the aesthetics of movement (›Busby‹), and others focus on the tribulations of humans as athletic performance machines (›Solarium‹). Sports and bodies can be beautiful (›Axiom‹), sports can enthuse people (›Rennsymphonie‹), liberate the spirit (›Hyppääjä‹) or symbolically isolate and imprison body and mind (›Knock Out‹). You can explain half the world with sports (›Grip‹) or turn our perceptions topsy-turvy (›LIFTN‹/›STRHOME‹). While some may seek for redemption in sports (›Nackt‹), others find love’s grief (›Der falsche Spieler‹) or love’s fortunes (›Kirmes in Hollywood‹). Sports can lead to a better life (›Der Aufstieg‹), to self-experiments in the battle with the elements (›Several Interruptions‹) or simply to cinematic experiments and literal attacks on the audience (›Combat de Boxe‹). Oh, and of course Churchill himself was a passionate equestrian, marksman, fencer, swimmer and boxer. So clear the ring and roll the films!

Text and film selection:Anja Ellenberger

Motive 5: Fit to Drop

According to Heidegger, everything that we human beings consider progress is designed to remove us further and further away from our natural state. Medicine increases our life expectancy in unnatural ways, writing preserves information from its inevitable oblivion, and weapons, fire and hunting techniques remove us from our natural position in the food chain.

In the end sports are just one aspect of a completely artificial and unnatural civilisation, in which they fulfil several system-supporting roles, including an acceptable method of blowing off steam, an economical factor as well as a national and cultural form of expression. At the same time, sports are so popular for those watching as well as those practicing it because they allow us to momentarily sense that there is more to life than mere functionality and the logical surrender of human nature to the system and its tools.

This direct effect on the organism can be seen in ›Patch‹, where movement and fleetingly transforming shapes make our hearts beat faster. You can see that even inventions which were designed to substitute the human locomotive system challenge us to try and match them in ›Stayer‹. In the forest however, it is not just the movements that coalesce, but our relation to time and space itself as well (›Forst‹). In times of emotional distress, sports can often offer not quite risk-free escape routes (›Michelle’s Sacrifice‹), and even spectators can leave their everyday persona and unleash the animal inside (›The Dogs‹). But even if what you really want is to reach a higher state of consciousness, you can do so at well organized sports events (›Six Day Run‹). And once all that is done, and our minds and bodies are sedated by the tranquillity of exhaustion, we can take it easy and relax our muscles a little before we return to being a happily functioning cogwheel in the great machine again (›Gym Nastix‹).

I wish our audiences comfy seats and a pleasant view while the films and protagonists are going to give their all. Snacks and refreshments will be available in the foyer. However, be careful that you don’t have an accident on the way there or back: After all, it is the fittest who survive, and we are all fit to drop.

Text and film selection: Lars Frehse