Sunday, August 16, 2009

THIS SPORTING LIFE (Lindsay Anderson, 1963, UK) Frank Machin is an evolutionary aberration, reverting towards primal instincts, a great ape who stalks the rugby fields but who dreams of becoming (and remaining) a man. His violence is poetry on the muddy turf but it stains his personal life, inseparable from his obsessive relationship with his widowed landlady, a woman whose grief condemns Frank to paying tenant. She polishes her late husbands shoes…shoes that Frank will never fill. The qualities that make Frank a great footballer are the very qualities that make him an egocentric and harsh person, never able to rise above spiritual poverty. Director Lindsay Anderson utilizes stark black and white cinematography, his camera holding upon Frank’s fractured visage or filming on location that brings an added depth of grittiness and realism to the drama. Anderson is able to seamlessly edit archival rugby footage into his frantic close-ups so we feel connected to these athletes as they pummel and scrum upon the gladiatorial field of combat. But Anderson is not concerned with making a sports film: he focuses instead upon Frank Machin and his need to escape his social standing, to use his talent to become something he could not otherwise achieve. Soon, Frank learns he is just another product of the team’s owner: Weaver is a rich man who peddles flesh and blood for other fat men’s enjoyment. The story’s apex concerns the relationship between the widow Mrs. Hammond and our protagonist, a physically and emotionally tumultuous climax whose existentialism is reminiscent of Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: only this time the spider-god is crushed under a clenched fist. The elliptical editing patterns disrupt the narrative and we are often confused as to events occurring in flashback or real time which immerses us into the fractured timeline: it makes us pay attention to every detail. Richard Harris’ performance is wonderfully virile and tainted with sexual aggression, and Rachel Roberts as the beleaguered widow suffuses her character with mystical profundity, a quicksilver quality that is both spiteful and touching. Though Frank has temporarily escaped the machines of the coalmines, he wanders the muddy fields of his own personal purgatory…forever. (B)

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