Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Sport, depression and the death of Robert Enke

There is a strong fascist bias in our relationship to professional athletes. We expect them to be paradigms of physical and psychological strength. These are the men and women who have actively trained away the weaknesses of mind and body that most of us passively accept. They have achieved a state of perfection that sets them apart as superhuman. It is this we admire in them. It is this that fills stadiums, sells tickets and clinches sponsorship deals. We want them to wear a carapace of invincibility.

But should they show signs of frailty or weakness then, public adulation can quickly turn to disappointment. And, worse still, should this become a sustained weakness then the athlete will be exposed to an intense scrutiny under an exacting audience that usually results in them being expelled from the divine sporting pantheon. They fall to earth as figures of public pity or ridicule. Chad Harbach’s critically acclaimed novel, The Art of Fielding, nails this tension through the rise and fall of his baseball protagonist, Henry Skrimshander. He writes:

We all have our doubts and fragilities, but poor Henry had to face his in public at appointed times, with half the crowd anxiously counting on him and the other half cheering for him to fail.

This year’s William Hill Sports book of the year, A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng is a disturbing account of how public and professional expectations can place terrible pressures on sportspeople. While the rewards for those who excel in a particular sport may be enormous (both in terms of public acclaim and wealth), this can turn into a Faustian pact, with men and women trading their souls and, in some cases, losing their lives for the promise of success.

On 10 November 2009, Robert Enke, threw himself in front of a passing train. He was a goalkeeper for the German football team and would probably have represented his country at the 2010 World Cup. From an early age he was recognised as being an outstanding talent: physically strong, intelligent, with an instinctive sense of space, excellent reactions and a radar like sensitivity to the position of players and the ball. He was admired by both peers and fans as a formidable goalkeeping presence. But Robert Enke was also a man who suffered from severe bouts of clinical depression which he hid for fear of looking weak. After his first game for Fenerbahce in Turkey went disastrously wrong, Enke wrote in his diary:

11.08.2003. I’m finished. We lost the game 0-3. Didn’t look good from the first goal. After that I was very nervous in the second half. Was mocked by some of the fans...Would like to get away from Istanbul, do a proper course of therapy at last. At any rate, it can’t go on. Understood yesterday that I’m simply not up to the demands...Terri (his wife) just rang and had to put the phone down again to cry. I feel helpless and anxious. I don’t leave the hotel room, I’m afraid of people’s eyes. I’d just like to live without anxiety and nerves.

The emotional honesty of Enke’s diary entries provide valuable insights into the nature of depression itself – the feelings of isolation, anxiety and inertia. Reng gives us a clinical glimpse inside Enke’s head. But we also see how his position as an international goalkeeper compounds his anguish. The goalkeeper is the last line of defence. Everything is literally in his hands. Enke’s Barcelona team-mate, Victor Valdes talks of the goalie’s “special sort of suffering”. The goalkeeper is at once part of a team and a figure who stands alone. Tactical and defence errors may result in a goal but it is the goalkeeper who lets the goal in. He must live with this failure.

One psychiatrist who cared for Enke told him that his problem was that he had never learnt to live with his mistakes. He reminded the goalkeeper that “a mistake wasn’t the whole game, a game was never the whole season, a season wasn’t a career. A career isn’t a life.” Enke could accept the principle intellectually but he was incapable of integrating it into his personality. “If you could have my head for half an hour,” he told his wife, “you’d know why I go mad.”

Like so many sportspeople, Enke found it impossible to admit to his psychological and emotional difficulties. He kept burying them for fear of being outed as weak. This contributed to his unhappiness and mental dissolution. But recently some professional athletes have been willing to talk about how the pressures of their particular sport has played into their feelings of depression. Respected figures such as Marcus Trescothick, Jonny Wilkinson and Stan Collymore have spoken openly about the crushing self-doubt and emotional turmoil that they have battled with. They have brought this hidden subject out into the open. While we may fantasise that our sporting heroes are invincible, such brave testimonies remind us that sportsmen and women are not immune from the fragility of the human condition.

A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng, Yellow Jersey Press, London, 2011

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Steve McQueen's Shame

Too much discussion has revolved around the raw images of loveless sex in Steve McQueen’s remarkable film, Shame. It is true that this is not a film for the prude. Yet, Shame is no arthouse exercise in soft porn, a vulgar excuse for adolescent prurience or a sexual addiction “issue” film. It is a serious film with a moral core - film making of the highest order and executed with an uncompromisingly adult attitude.

The images that really matter in Shame, that penetrate the imagination, are those lyrical ones that mark this film out as an ambitious tone poem about the shame that shapes the human condition. In theological terms, the shame of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise becomes in McQueen’s film, the shame of brother and sister who cannot connect with themselves or others.

The film opens with an image of devastating beauty. The handsome, thirty something, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), lies sprawled naked from the waist up on a bed. The deathly paleness of his flesh contrasts with the rich aquamarine of the sheets. Framing the image at a disorientating angle, McQueen signals that one of the interests of his film will be the nature of perspective and how shifting views of people undermine our superficial judgements. We may want Brandon to play to the caricature of the “sex maniac,” but he doesn’t. We may want to dismiss him as a sleazy pervert or admire him as an internet age Lothario, but neither of these crude perspectives do justice to the complex character on the screen.

McQueen’s opening cinematic image employs all the artistic attention of a Renaissance painting and clearly references Christ in the tomb images. But like the greatest Renaissance art, this highly accomplished image contains depths of meaning that elicit from the viewer responses beyond mere technical admiration. Brandon is entombed by his addiction. He is, in Norman Mailer’s famous phrase, “a prisoner of sex”. Brandon’s misery and self-loathing are communicated in his uncomprehending, dead-eye stare. There is darkness in his eyes. The bed where this man exercises his priapic lust is also the place where he finds himself most alone and alienated. What should be a place of sleep becomes a metaphor for a tormenting, existential insomnia that deprives Brandon of life’s most essential element: love.

In a pivotal scene, Brandon goes to see his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), sing in a snazzy club with a breathtaking panorama of the city. McQueen uses his signature film device of holding the camera on a scene and letting the action play out in real time, with the minimum of editing or tricksy camera work. Using a static close-up of her head, McQueen films Sissy singing New York, New York. But this is not the big band, razzmatazz anthem to the Big Apple that we are familiar with. Sissy’s rendition is mournful, brittle, extracting from the lyrics and musical arrangement an emotional dissonance that mirrors what is going on in her and Brandon’s respective lives. If I could make it there, I’d make it anywhere...The scene tests the endurance of the viewer. McQueen does not flinch. Can we bear to watch such naked suffering or will we turn away? As his sister sings, Brandon tears up and, for the first time, the pain within the man bleeds to the surface.

The third main character in Shame is the city. McQueen’s New York is cast in dark hues. Nightclubs are bathed in a palate of sweaty reds. The modernist sheen of offices and apartments are drained of any human warmth. Subway platforms are purgatorial antechambers. Trains ferry morose souls across the Styx of the urban sprawl to unknown destinations. It is a godless place. Having been betrayed by the promises of instant happiness and gratification, people are seen trying to rescue something of recognisable value from the rubble of their lives.

Against the backdrop of the city, Brandon goes jogging. In one continuous, uninterrupted scene McQueen’s camera tracks Brandon as he pounds the streets. Here is the loneliness of the long distance runner - Brandon running from all his internal hurt and trying to sweat his onanistic passions into submission. The image hums with a poetic density, whose meaning evades easy description and complacent thinking. A man jogging at night in a city suddenly acquires a universal resonance and significance. We recognise something of our own fragility in this action. The jogging scene is exquisite and heartbreaking like so much in this great film.

The ferocious, emotionally naked acting of Fassbender and Mulligan has been widely praised. I hope they continue to win awards for their coruscating performances. But, for me, Shame is all about the visual image and a reminder of how cinema can approach the mystery of who we are with startling, profound perspectives.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Mission Impossible vs The Artist: Sound and fury vs silence

Two recent films – Mission Impossible and The Artist – provide contradictory cinematic experiences and ask the audience to engage with the medium of film in different ways. Both films are interesting because they are box office draws and have received favourable critical reviews. The Artist (though, in my view, hugely overrrated) is hotly tipped to win Oscars this year. But The Invisible Province is interested in the question of our engagement with a film –not so much the fact that we do engage with a film, but what that engagement looks like.

Is there a place for a cinema that requires our attention and concentration? Or will the dominant tendency in film be to cater for the diminishing attention span of audiences who simply want the relentless activity (with a car chase thrown in) and white noise (but turned up to full volume) that mirrors so much of contemporary urban life? Is some kind of synthesis possible that bridges these differing expressions of engagement? Mission Impossible and The Artist provide some clues to possible answers.

The latest episode of the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible franchise is filmmaking for the Play station generation. Ghost Protocol jettisons narrative in favour of action set pieces that comprise different levels of difficulty for Ethan Hunt and his crack team. The film is littered with props and gadgets: adhesive gloves, a scanning contact lens, masks and guns. This is paraphernalia lifted from the virtual worlds of the computer game, the equipment that a contestant wins as he hits scores and climbs levels. But the computer game influence is also evident in the film’s pace, editing and aesthetic of Heraclitean flux. There is no opportunity to look at anything, to savour or reflect on an image, because everything passes as a Formula 1 blur.

Faced with such lobotomised filmmaking, all an audience is required to do is to be directed from one frenetic set piece to the next while shutting down any critical mental faculties en route. With one’s synapses besieged by the film’s sound and fury, the characters on screen are no longer required to resemble anything remotely human. There are buff bod's, hot chicks and IT geeks in this caricature paradise. All they have to do is kick ass and perform gymnastic tricks in exotic locations. The only method acting in this movie is performed by Tom Cruise’s hair. The violence comes from the Road Runner/Coyote stable (the director, Brad Bird, previously directed the Pixar animation hit, The Incredibles) and it exists outside any recognisable moral universe, except the most infantile one of goodies and baddies.

The argument in favour of movies like Mission Impossible is that it is popular entertainment with pretensions to nothing higher than a big box office return. It gives the popcorn audience what it wants is the usual defense. That may be true and the huge numbers going to see this film suggest that it is delivering the goods. Although giving people what they think they want is not the same as giving them something of value – something that allows them to reflect on themselves and others in a less predictable, clich├ęd manner.

But the failure of a film like Mission Impossible is not that it provides mere entertainment (being entertained is an important thing) but that it debases the language of tension, suspense, and ambiguity by impersonating a foreign medium, the computer game. It is the unique cinematic syntax associated with the thriller/action movie that makes an Alfred Hitchcock film so compelling or the Waterloo chase sequence that opens The Bourne Ultimatum so edge-of-seat exciting. Without this common, fully developed language, an audience is turned into passive, disengaged viewers. They are fed thin cinematic gruel that leaves them cinematically malnourished. Up until this point in time, cinema’s main interests existed independently of the attitudes and aesthetic of the Wii or the Play station. This is changing and with this change the engagement with a film becomes less focussed and more distracted.

The Artist takes us back to the early days of cinema – the silent movie. It reminds us of how audiences engaged with a film, less as a piece of entertainment and more as an event. Some of the most poignant moments in this novelty film are images of a cinema full of people watching a silent movie and having an emotional experience – visibly expressing emotions of happiness, sadness or fear. In that age of cinema, the viewer had to engage with the story. They had the job of interpreting the visual mood of a piece or the emotions the actors on screen were attempting to communicate.

The silent movie demanded directorial storytelling skill and expressiveness. Viable narrative arcs existed which allowed the viewer not only to follow the story with ease but to contribute to the plot development in an active manner. What was left unspoken on screen, found a voice in the imagination of the viewer. In this way, the viewer began to form their own cinematic lexicon with which to engage with the images on the screen.

Two very different films. Two very different ways for an audience to engage with a film. The popularity of The Artist suggests that there may still be an appetite for films that make an audience work. Yet, it is Ghost Protocol that will father a litter of poor imitations who will, in turn, fill our multiplex screens and leave audiences, if not speechless, then, probably dumb.