Saturday, May 15, 2010

Day 37: Two Tribes

Today is an important day in the English sporting calendar, today is an important day in England, it’s the FA Cup Final. A once-a-year event, played at Wembley Stadium, the culmination of a football knock-out tournmanent that started some time last year, involving every team in England’s Football Association (the “FA” in the FA Cup), distilled down to the last two standing.

This year, those two teams are Chelsea and my hometown team, Portsmouth. The adversaries could not be more different (unlike the Montagues & Capulets). Chelsea have just won the English Premier League, finishing the season with an 8-0 rout of Wigan Athletic last weekend. To them go the spoils of victory, the silverware, the Krug champagne and the plaudits.

Portsmouth, on the other hand, finished bottom and have now been relegated to the next league down; it has been a season to remember, one never to forget. Chelsea are one of the “big four” clubs in England, along with Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United, indeed, Man Utd have, themselves, given their Old Trafford ground the moniker of “the theatre of dreams”, such is the bounteous banquet table of football that they and their fans feast from every week.

Portsmouth had best rename Fratton Park (our ground) the “Theatre of the Absurd”, a phrase coined to describe “...dramatic form portraying the futility of human struggle in a senseless world” (think playwrights Beckett, Pinter and Ionesco). That would sum up our season very succinctly: four owners in eight months - two Arabs, an Israeli and a man from Hong Kong - who between them have left us £135m in debt and put us in the hands of administrators. We have been punished with a deduction of 9 points for ending up in administration, which all-but guaranteed us that relegation and, we start off next season (in the lower "Championship") with a further deficit of 15 points, possibly consigning us to plummet through another trap door into League Division One. I have only touched on an inch of the fiasco that is a mile and more long, all, off-field mismanagement.

But the history FA Cup is peppered with acts of romance and giant-killing over the years, not that I’m going to be holding my breath for a fairytale denoument to our footballing year. Come what may, I will be with my team, my fellowship of supporters and my friends, in spirit, as they journey to Wembley in north London today, as I have been for over 45 years of my life. Win or lose, I will remain as philosophical as Wittgenstein, Kant or Descartes, come the day’s, bloody end.

I truly am phlegmatic and imperturbable when it comes to the sporting outcomes of the two teams I follow - Portsmouth and England - let’s face it, I would have to be, for the Krug moments have been few and very far between. Footballing success is not a close neigbour of mine, more a relative that I’ve never met who went MIA many, many years ago before I was born. Infact, where I stand on the footballing fortunes of my team and on the game in general has been eloquently summed up in the British TV series Minder:

Arthur Daley and his long-suffering sidekick Terry, had tracked down a one-time London criminal, now kicking back on Spain’s Costa Del Sol. Asked what he most missed about England - maybe friends, family, loved ones and the like - with the ease that comes from a candour, tempered by too much sun and sangria, he confessed that he “missed watching Fulham get stuffed in the cold and wet”.

Day #37 Tip: You Can Mix Genres
The “Sports Film” is one of the hardest genres to pull off, many have tried and many have gone down in flames. Why so?

Football has a particularly nasty track record in the cinema: Escape From Glory was a very low moment in cinematic history; a film about a team of POW’s (including Sly Stallone, Michael Caine and Pele) playing against a team of Nazi’s during WWII??!! The recent trilogy of Goalfilms was so inauthentic that it was laughable, then there’s the new sub-gnere which is “the hooligan film”...The Football Factory and Green Street Hooligans (Elijah Wood aka Frodo Baggins as a football thug!!??) which are more about romanticising the off-pitch biffo than the artistry of game itself. And don’t get me started on Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, depictining Colin Firth as a devout Arsenal fan.

The problem for any sports filmmaker is that you have two distinct and very different target audiences you can pitch your film at: the afficianado of the sport and/or the average movie -goer. Most filmmakers try to grab both and end up appealing to neither, falling between two stools.

In my advertising days, I worked on Sunsilk Shampoo, in a day when their sales were declining. Research groups told us the problem: mums thought it was a product for their daughters, the daughters thought it was something aimed at their mums, guess who was buying it? Neither.

The golden rule of the Sports Film is to decide which audience you want to alienate and which you want to embrace. Go niche and grab the afficianados (Friday Night Lights) or go wide and appeal to the mass (Any Given Sunday). The two examples I’ve given are both films about American Football/Gridiron, both valid takes on the game, one reeks of authenticity, the other offers the candied fragrance of Cameron Diaz. You pays your money and you makes your choice.

There are, however, two gigantic exceptions to this thinking of mine: the baseball film and the boxing movie. These two sports, when played big and writ large on a cinema screen absolutely prove that you can mix your target audiences, mix your genres and know the honeyed taste of success without compromising love of the game.

In boxing, I give you: Raging Bull, Rocky, Cinderella Man, Ali, Hurricane and Jimmy (never heard of it? It was a short film of mine from 1998 that won a clutch of awards!!).

But baseball out-trumps the pugilistic picture, here’s just a few of the many: The Natural, Field Of Dreams, Bull Durham, Wild Thing, The Fan, A League Of Their Own, For Love Of TheGame .....heck, Kevin Costner alone has made three baseball films alone. Anyone want to talk about his golf film?

Granted, I’m painting with a broad brushstroke today, but the point is this: sports film or no, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t mix genres. You may have to work out a hierarchy of which genre takes precedence over which (decided along with your plot and subplot prioritisation), but all of the film’s I’ve named are a mix of biopic (the filmic biography) redemption story, maturation story, love story and, of course, sports film.

Play Up Pompey!!

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