Film directors exploring tragedy should make movies about cricket | Cricket

Darren Aronofsky directed two films about two performers two years apart in 2008 and 2010. The first followed an ageing wrestler as he prepared for an anniversary rematch with his old opponent, the second a ballet dancer who landed the lead role in Swan Lake she had coveted her whole career. They seem worlds apart, but Aronofsky considered The Wrestler and Black Swan to be “companion pieces” – a singular tale of a ballerina who falls in love with a wrestler that eventually split in two. “What was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both these worlds are,” he explained in an interview with Collider. “They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.”

The similarities reflect the signature both of Aronofsky’s filmography and the subgenre his psychological thrillers dominate: that of the obsessed performer. In Black Swan, this role is fulfilled by Nina, the ballerina who struggles to dance the eponymous role as it requires her to adopt a character very unlike herself: the sensual, seductive temptress in stark contrast to her own child-like demeanour. To dance the perfect Swan Queen, she must attain some elusive, indefinable quality naturally possessed by her rival, Lily, and poorly elaborated upon by her mentor whose euphemistic advice reflects the seemingly impossible task before her. “Perfection is not just about control,” he tells her, “it is also about letting go.”

Her counterpart in The Wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, is struggling to come to terms with retirement forced upon him by a heart attack. Unable to deal with the mundane reality of working in a supermarket, he sacrifices his physical health (and ultimately, it is implied, his life) to return to wrestling one last time, else his body and existence have no purpose.

Their stories are characterised by an exclusive setting that is unfamiliar to most in the audience (professional wrestling, ballet, or, as in the case of Damien Chazelle’s breakout film, Whiplash, conservatoire jazz drumming), a driven protagonist motivated by a fear of imperfection and failure, and the inevitability of this motivation to end in self-destruction – whether through madness, injury or death.

Such stories possess all the base elements of a tragedy: “the fateful wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity, and its dominant force is indignation”, as per Arthur Miller’s definition in his 1949 essay Tragedy and the Common Man. Honour is the protagonist’s dearest asset, and so the fear that drives them to their downfall is that of humiliation. We find these stories in all walks of life, though some settings lend themselves more readily to their structure than others.

Jonathan Trott ducks a bouncer from Mitchell Johnson during the Ashes. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

One such setting could be England in 2013, where batter Jonathan Trott felt as though his “dignity was being stripped away with every short ball [he] ducked or parried”. Fear becomes obsession, and obsession becomes all-consuming: Trott stands before bowling machines set to 95mph, balls colliding with his body in rapid succession, to create for himself a semblance of control while it rapidly escapes him. He does not fear pain but failure.

His story fits this subgenre, where the focus on physicality and the body’s limits see protagonists performing through pain and injury; the monotonous reality of everyday life is juxtaposed with the cinematic abstraction of their professions to illustrate a motivating fear of failure; replacements wait in the wings to negate complacency and rest; practice becomes a spiralling act of repetition and frustration; and with each step the protagonists immerse themselves further into a world that requires them to undergo physical and mental metamorphosis to find acceptance – to ultimately find success.

These stories have similar characteristics, but sport is rarely given the same psychological treatment in fiction. The strive for athletic precision and physical perfection through obsessively monitored channels of fitness, nutrition, and skill remain largely reserved, in fiction, for dancers and actors. The necessity for the tragic narrative to focus on an individual is supposedly incompatible with the presence of the collective, which lends itself more naturally to stories of plucky underdogs and unbreakable team spirit – in other words, stories with happy endings.

As suggested by Trott’s ordeal, however, there is one sport that manages to transcend this apparent incompatibility. Though a team sport, cricket spotlights the individual for hours – or even days – at a time, in a way that football or rugby can only ever do fleetingly. A batter is stranded alone, inevitably to receive their downfall at some point during their innings, but “for a moment everything is in suspension, nothing is accepted, and in this stretching and tearing apart of the cosmos, in the very action of so doing, the character gains ‘size’” – as Miller says of the tragic protagonist.

The endurance of a match can become belittled by the mundane and sometimes blithe surroundings: the crowd, the commentary, the culture. As Nina’s otherwise precise dancing is stunted by a lack of some intangible, unreachable factor in Black Swan, so too are the strengths and shortcomings of cricketers discussed in terms of vague and imprecise idiosyncrasies on top of, or in spite of, their technical abilities, about which they can clearly do very little.

Players must quickly assimilate their mindset into an environment preceded by prestige and upheld by elitism, lest they risk being left behind; being replaced by younger, fitter players is a constant threat. Cricket’s selling point is its reliance on mental resilience above physical, the deconstruction of a mind over a month, five days, one over.

That does not mean it has bucked the trend in terms of athletic development, either: health and fitness are now pinched and tweaked as much as they are in any other sport, injuries are frequent and dealt with unceremoniously. Accuracy in technique is eternally strived for, footwork is meticulously analysed by ever-watching eyes, timing and reaction are perfected through mind-numbing repetition in front of machines, frustration builds under a calm surface and finds only brief outlets. Players make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.

The similarities between cricket and performing arts are fascinating if you look for them. The requirement to keep one’s head as still as possible, as if disconnected from the body, which moves with fluid precision, is foundational to both batting and ballet. The rapid placement of a batter’s feet as they decode the bowler’s own movements in a split second seem as though they could belong to a dancer moving from first, to fifth, to second position.

Nasser Hussain relates his own experiences in playing cricket as a teenager to that of his sister Benazir in the Royal Ballet School. Parental pressure, as well as the environment of high stakes and expectations cultivated by either vocation, were enough for Hussain to consider the pair of them allies in the same impossible fight.

Nasser Hussain in 1997.
Nasser Hussain in 1997. Photograph: John Giles/PA

This image appears to be lost in the realm of fiction, however. Instead of updating its place in the cultural canon, the reflection of contemporary cricket has remained largely unchanged for the past century, dwindling in recent decades as its immortalisation in novels and sitcoms strays further from the modern sport’s reality. In 20th century literature, where cricket makes the majority of its fictional appearances, it is employed as an antithesis of tension, madness and the unknown, as opposed to a vehicle for them, by adopting a defined role of “the familiar”.

Many writers have utilised this role. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carré uses the cricket field as an overt metaphor for England, reminisced through a photograph of “the men in cricket gear … on a summer course at Sarratt, the grounds stretching out behind them, mown and sunlit and the sightscreens glistening”, and later confronted in reality as withering and irretrievable (“Sarratt was a sorry place after the grandeur which Smiley remembered. Most of the elms had gone with the disease; pylons burgeoned over the old cricket field”).

The game itself is presented as an idyll of the past: many used to play it, such as Jerry Westerby, who “had once been wicket-keeper for a county cricket team” and was left with hands “enormous and cushioned with muscle” as a result. Those who still play it, such as the tragic Jim Prideaux, are doomed to entrapment in nostalgia and misery in the present.

In Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the sport’s familiarity grounds the protagonist away from her fantasies. Its “practical and dull” nature are commented upon when she reads a match report in a newspaper over breakfast. This is the most common use of cricket in fiction: a mundane bedrock above which action takes place – rarely, if ever, becoming centred itself.

When it is treated with a little more sympathy than inspiring boredom, it is usually used for comedic purposes – to parallel its accepted farcicality with that of the middle-England lifestyle, or to satirise the English tradition as something nonsensical to anyone on the outside looking in. Such notions remain in the public consciousness today. The ever-feared question of “why do you like cricket?” has many rambling justifications that essentially amount to something regarding its unique quality of absurdity.

Within the realm of fiction, this existing perception could be advantageous, if only the ironic element is exploited beyond the comedic and into the tragic. The nature of sport lays the basic foundation for tragedy, “the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly”: to be so blinkered into the necessity to realise one’s full potential, whatever the cost. The body becomes a vehicle only for performance, sacrificed utterly to the discipline until it has nothing left to give. As this is the body’s only use, to destroy it in the process of achieving superstardom is seen not only as acceptable, but inevitable, encouraged by peers and mentors who may be just as embroiled in this insular environment as the protagonist.

Miles Teller and JK Simmons go toe to toe in Whiplash.
Miles Teller and JK Simmons go toe to toe in Whiplash. Photograph: Daniel Mc Fadden/Shutterstock

Whiplash invites the audience to consider that Fletcher, in driving his students to mental breakdowns, suicide and physical injury, was only doing what he believed necessary to make them the great artists they so desired to be. Andy Flower, whose response to players struggling with anxiety, eating disorders, and exhaustion was only to push them harder, has since expressed regret for his actions, but this does not negate that, in some ways, his tactics worked. Everything but success is expendable; as Miller writes, “the need of man to wholly realise himself is the only fixed star, and whatever it is that hedges his nature and lowers it is ripe for attack and examination.”

Cricket pushes this one step further with the juxtaposition of these sacrificial elements of professional sport and its own legacy of respectable sensibility. Contrasts like these are typical of the genre. Randy’s manager in The Wrestler routinely belittles his former profession as trivial, between shots of Randy standing in doorways and recalling the cheer of the crowd, and meeting his former fellow wrestlers who have been left with life-changing injuries as a result of their stunts.

In one of the few scenes in Black Swan that departs from the insular world of ballet, the protagonist Nina and her new rival Lily meet two men on a night out, one feigning interest in their profession and the other dismissing it outright as “boring”. The stakes could not be higher in Nina’s artistic bubble, but just outside it they are perceived to be inconsequential and unremarkable. Similarly, a protagonist at their crease may find themselves amid a maddening contrast between inward turmoil and outward indifference.

Such a protagonist has never quite come to fruition, however, because existing narratives are most often written from the position of a spectator. Even when the perspective is ostensibly that of a player, a sense of detachment remains, as though the characters are voyeurs to their own contribution to the quaint, romantic image – varying in its degree of enthusiasm and self-awareness depending on how critical of this image the narrative purports to be. As a result, the audience remain firmly in the stands, bound by the writer’s sense of obligation to either honour or parody this image in full view, and the psyche of the pitch is left untapped.

Strip all of this preconception away, and one could find the obsessive terror in the past preserved only for prima ballerinas and studio band drummers. The infliction of sacrifice upon a performer during their fatal transition between reality and greatness is what characterises the subgenre outlined by the likes of Chazelle, Aronofsky, and others – Nina fatally wounding herself in her hallucinatory attempts to kill her rival moments before performing her finale, Andrew attempting to perform for Fletcher despite having been involved in a high-speed car crash just minutes earlier, Randy preparing for his final showstopping jump despite feeling the onset of a heart attack. It is this intermediate, uncertain, and contradictory domain which cricket inhabits so perfectly.

Natalie Portman in Black Swan.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Photograph: Everett/Shutterstock

Margot Fonteyn said of ballet: “If audiences knew what pain the dancers were enduring, only people who enjoyed bullfights could bear to watch it.” Tragedy is similar: it is at times an emotionally taxing ordeal to watch, but we watch it nonetheless. The mental and physical journey that all performers – artists and sportspeople alike – undergo to fully realise the expectations placed upon them are fascinating to audiences because of both their daunting extremity and their eerie familiarity.

Tragedy necessitates the romanticising of sacrifice; when the question of whether the ends justify the means arises, the hero answer “yes” while the audience delivers a resounding “no”. In many of cricket’s fictional depictions, the hero and audience become unified observers, and so tragedy becomes plain nostalgia. In order to distinguish the two, the notion of cricket as the “familiar” must be subverted (but not entirely discarded), and the unknown embraced. Making use of it would require a narrative that focuses on the eternal, awful moment of the present, not dwelling on the past. When it comes to fiction, we might undo everything we thought we knew about cricket in order to relearn it from the inside out, and in doing so discover new stories to tell about the same old performances.

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https://www.theguardian.com/sport/the-nightwatchman/2022/feb/10/cricket-film-directors-tragedy-black-swan-wrestler-whiplash

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