Film written and directed by Sacha Wolff
Sports movies used to fit a pattern. You would see young men in the prime of health doing feats beyond the capabilities of those of us in the audience of more mundane physical talent. Then, one of them would be felled by a health issue and we would all weep together at the loss. Pride of the Yankees and Brian’s Song both fit the pattern.
A lot of reasons come to mind why this was the standard tale. It gave permission to masculine men to cry one or two tears, though no more than three. Of course, the traditional structure of tragedy requires a fall from a great height. Disease afflicting the already infirm is not nearly as devastating as when the incredibly vigorous suffer, according to traditional art criticism (very traditional, going back to Aristotle). Theoretically, the experience of the dramatized tragedy allows us to prepare for the tragedies in our own lives. If we want to be unkind to the public, then perhaps we see a bit of Schadenfreude when those people enjoy the misfortune of others. This idea falters when we realize that no one is enjoying the tragedy. (That doesn’t mean that some of the lesser lights in the sports death canon aren’t ripe for parody.)
Then, Ron Shelton and others changed the pattern with Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. We stopped focusing on the life of the athlete and began using sports as a metaphor for more than vitality. While I realize that those films were intensely character-driven, I would argue that the characters existed outside the baseball background. Previously, the characters needed to be athletes- that role was their defining characteristic.
I haven’t had
that much experience with rugby, though it has cropped up a little more over recent years in my reading and viewing. My desire to have some basic understanding led me to watch a few matches on ESPN, but I can’t claim to understand it very well. Yet, I have watched and enjoyed movies about all sorts of things about which I know little.
Mercenary encapsulates much of what I outline above- almost a synthesis of the sport as background metaphor as well as sport provoking the tragedies portrayed. Surely, it held some fascination because much that was shown I had not seen before, but that’s the point of exposing ourselves to art, isn’t it?
As must be clear by now, I’m fascinated by the way we have moved from film as emotional purgative to film as social and economic commentary. Perhaps Fear Strikes Out was ahead of its time, but it still bore the trappings of illness taking down one of our greats. Wolff has stripped away those trappings for something that still strikes at my emotional core as well as the way I think about sports.
What’s it all about?
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