Are Movies Going to Pieces?

I trust I won't be mistaken for the sort of boob who attacks ambiguity or complexity. I am interested in the change from the period when the meaning of art and form in art was in making complex experience simple and lucid, as is still the case in Knife in the Water or Bandits of Orgosolo, to the current acceptance of art as technique, the technique which in a movie like This Sporting Life makes a simple, though psychologically confused, story look complex, and modern because inexplicable.

It has become easy—especially for those who consider "time" a problem and a great theme—to believe that fast editing, out of normal sequence, which makes it difficult, or impossible, for the audience to know if any action is taking place, is somehow more "cinematic" than a consecutively told story. For a half century movies have, when necessary, shifted action in time and place and the directors generally didn't think it necessary to slap us in the face with each cut or to call out, "Look what I can do!" Yet people who should know better will tell you how "cinematic" The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner or This Sporting Life is—as if fiddling with the time sequence was good in itself—proof that the "medium" is really being used. Perhaps, after a few decades of indoctrination in high art, they are convinced that a movie is cinematic when they don't understand what's going on. This Sporting Life, which Derek Hill, among others, has called the best feature ever made in England, isn't gracefully fragmented, it's smashed. The chunks are so heavy and humorless and, in an odd way, disturbing, that we can tell the film is meant to be bold, powerful, tragic.

There's a woman writer I'd be tempted to call a three-time loser: she's Catholic, Communist, and lesbian; but she comes on more like a triple threat. She's in with so many groups that her books are rarely panned. I thought of her when I read the reviews of This Sporting Life: this film has it made in so many ways, it carries an identity card with all the outsiders. The hero is "bewildered," the heroine "bruised" and "afraid of life," the brutal rugby games are possibly a "microcosm of a corrupt society," and the film murkily suggests all sorts of passion and protest, like a group of demonstrators singing "We Shall Overcome" and leaving it to you to fill in your own set of injustices. For Show magazine, "The football scenes bear the aspect of a savage rite, with the spectators as participants hungry for sacrifice. The love story . . . is simply another kind of scrimmage, a battle between two people who cannot communicate . . ." For the New York Times, the film "translates the confusions and unrequited longings of the angry young men and women of our time into memorable universal truths." (I wish the reviewer would spell out one or two of them for us.) The Times has an unusual interpretation of the love story: "The woman . . . only succumbs to him physically and the real roots he seeks are unattainable." This reminds me of my confusion as a schoolgirl when a jazz musician who had been introduced to me during the break called out "Dig you later" as he went back to the stand.

In the Observer, Penelope Gilliatt offers extraordinary praise: "This Sporting Life is a stupendous film. It has a blow like a fist. I've never seen an English picture that gave such expression to the violence and the capacity for pain that there is in the English character. It is there in Shakespeare, in Marlowe, in Lawrence and Orwell and Hogarth, but not in our cinema like this before. This Sporting Life is hard to write about because everything important about it is really subverbal." But then so are trees and animals and cities. Isn't it precisely the artist's task to give form to his experience and the critic's task to verbalize on how this has been accomplished? She goes on to write of the hero, "The events almost seem to be happening to him in the dark. Half of them are told while he is under dentist's gas, in flashback, which is a clumsy device if one is telling a story but the natural method if one is searching around a character." English dental hygiene is notorious; still, isn't telling a story, with or without gas and flashbacks, a pretty good "natural" method of searching around a characters? But something more seems to be involved: "The black subjective spirit of the film is overpowering. It floods the sound track, which often has a peculiar resonance as though it were happening inside one's own head." Sort of a sunken cathedral effect? The bells are clanging in the reviewers' heads, but what's happening on the screen?

In one way or another, almost all the enthusiasts for a film like this one will tell you that it doesn't matter, that however you interpret the film, you will be right (though this does not prevent some of them from working out elaborate interpretations of Marienbad or The Eclipse or Viridiana). Walter Lassally says that "Antonioni's oblique atmospheric statements and Bunuel's symbolism, for example, cannot be analyzed in terms of good or bad . . . for they contain, in addition to any obvious meanings, everything that the viewer may read into them." Surely he can read the most onto a blank screen?

There's not much to be said for this theory except that it's mighty democratic. Rather pathetically, those who accept this Rorschach-blot approach to movies are hesitant and uneasy about offering reactions. They should be reassured by the belief that whatever they say is right, but as it refers not to the film but to them (turning criticism into autobiography) they are afraid of self-exposure. I don't think they really believe the theory—it's a sort of temporary public convenience station. More and more people come out of a movie and can't tell you what they've seen, or even whether they liked it.

An author like David Storey may stun them with information like "[This Sporting Life] works purely in terms of feeling. Only frivolous judgments can be made about it in conventional terms of style." Has he discovered a new method of conveying feeling without style? Or has he simply found the arrogance to frustrate normal responses? No one wants to have his capacity for feeling questioned, and if a viewer tries to play it cool, and discuss This Sporting Life in terms of corrupt professional football, he still won't score on that muddy field: there are no goalposts. Lindsay Anderson, who directed, says, "This Sporting Life is not a film about sport. In fact, I wouldn't really call it a story picture at all.... We have tried to make a tragedy . . . we were making a film about something unique." A tragedy without a story is unique all right: a disaster.

In movies, as in other art forms, if you are interested only in technique or if you reject technique, the result is just about the same: if you have nothing to express it is very much like thinking you have so much to express that you don't know how to say it. Something related to absorption in technique is involved in the enthusiasm of young people for what is called "the New American Cinema," though these films are often made by those who reject craftsmanship as well as meaning. They tend to equate technique with science and those who produced the Bomb. This approach, which is a little like the attack on scientific method in Eyes Without a Face, is used to explain why they must make movies without taking time to learn how. They're in a hurry, and anyway, technique might corrupt them.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In