Monday, 25 April 2011

United: on the other hand / a postscript

Still from G W Pabst's Kameradschaft (1931)

An excellent point made by commenter, panther, in which she says:

I think perhaps the main problem with the drama is a problem it could not solve, a problem inherent in the story it was exploring : what happened with the Manchester United team WAS tragic, almost unbearably so. It wasn't a complicated story.

There is something so right with that that it goes much deeper than my sense of revulsion at the cliché of the dialogue. In the post below I talked about the writer's capacity - indeed obligation - to electrify cliché. I complained that the writer in this case hadn't done it.

But one can be wrong, not so much in the detail but in the context of the whole. It wasn't a complicated story, says panther, and that is precisely the point. The point is the degree to which life is simplified into myth. This is where poems are better than prose. I am thinking here of Keith Douglas who wrote in 1941:

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I'm dead.

As the processes of earth
strip off the colour and the skin
take the brown hair and blue eye

and leave me simpler than at birth
when hairless I came howling in
as the moon came in the cold sky.

Of my skeleton perhaps
so stripped, a learned man will say
'He was of such a type and intelligence,' no more.

Thus when in a year collapse
particular memories, you may
deduce, from the long pain I bore

the opinions I held, who was my foe
and what I left, even my appearance
but incidents will be no guide.

Time's wrong-way telescope will show
a minute man ten years hence
and by distance simplified.

Through that lens see if I seem
substance or nothing: of the world
deserving mention or charitable oblivion

not by momentary spleen
or love into decision hurled
leisurely arrive at an opinion.

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I'm dead.

Keith Douglas died in 1944 at the age of twenty-four. He'd have been just the age to be playing football and be on the Munich plane. The simplification he talks about is the eliding of small distinctions into the broader form of myth. When people are young they are naturally more aware of myth than of distinctions. Distinctions are what we learn through experience and general unpredictability. The idea of dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse is the very essence of myth. That is why we remember Keats more than we do Wordsworth. There are major exceptions to this: the older versus the younger Yeats, the older versus the younger Titian, the older versus the younger Shakespeare. But the mind yearns to simplify, because it requires broad shapes to judge itself by, and it may be that the great resurgence of energy in age is another myth that we sometimes forget, if only because it is rarer.

In this respect the United film's choice to present the broad, crude simplicity of tragedy in terms of an enacted set of clichés swelling beyond itself, was perfectly appropriate. The electrification of cliché can happen - and it might have happened, I'm still not sure - over the whole film. I steeled myself to watch over the iPlayer and did so. I steeled myself on two counts: first to ignore the incidental heaviness and flatness in favour of the whole (very hard for a poet) and secondly, more personally, to allow someone else's presentation of a myth that I too believe in to intrude into the space of my own imagination. That may have been the harder thing.

In that respect the play had set itself an impossible task, or rather an impossible task for someone who participates in the myth. The standard the participator sets is always going to be too high.

However, I think the writer missed a trick, or even several tricks. The most interesting character there was Harry Gregg, who entered the film like a battering ram and every so often gave the action a hard prod. The balance between Gregg and Charlton was potentially powerful. Charlton's hero worship of Duncan Edwards was another unexplored area. The idea of a young player being almost in love with a senior team mate is complex. Murphy too was very good (credit to Tennant), but again his relationship to Busby remained mysterious and peripheral.

In the end the problem was that it was never clear whose myth was being addressed. Most likely it was the myth of the team. It was perhaps an appeal to the spirit of comradeship and leadership, very much like a war story, or the story of the Blitz. The sporting and the military are very strongly connected. Was Manchester United being held up as the model of male society? Maybe something like that, with all those mysterious loyalties and love? Or was it more the simple tragic ideal of sudden early death? Not quite, not exactly.

And that was, probably, the unsatisfactory part of something that could not help but be unsatisfactory. Maybe the unsatisfactory is the myth, and we have to make the rest up ourselves.


panther said...

George, you've identified two very important strands there. The contrast (in some ways) between Gregg and Charlton. The hero-worship by Charlton of Duncan Edwards and, implicit in that, some of the ways young men are inspired by slightly older ones. (I'm trying to express this without using the ghastly term "role model." There, I've just used it !)

There's also another story, isn't there ? how Gregg became a hero (an accidental one, as heroes often are) when he went back into the burning plane to rescue some people, and how he was honoured for that but never really wanted that kind of attention. Within The Drama, there are other dramas. Lots of these dramas carry the powerful motif of : how survivors deal with being survivors.

I suppose Hardaker was just a reminder of how boring farts existed long before a certain rugby player coined the phrase !

P Lane Anon said...

I wasn't going to comment on this at all - I was surprised by how much I liked United, but you liked it not at all, and the gap in our attitudes was too stark to leave much to say. However.

One very important point about the dialogue is that a great deal of it is lifted directly from reported recollections and biography. All of Hardaker, perhaps 10% of Murphy, almost all of the off-pitch Gregg, etc.

For me, that illustrates (a) the sheer effort the team behind United went to to treat the events (and football itself) with respect and (b) the problems you get when using direct biography in art or in this case film.

In most ways, this wasn't a football film in the old sense at all but an essay on death: it turned on the nightmarish plane scenes, which were there to say, these legends were real people and they didn't just fade away: it was violent and terrifying and sudden and really happened.

Football conversation these days always turns on ideas of how things were better, it was a more innocent time, loyal players, modern mercenaries blah-de-blah bullshit. The temptation must have been there to portray the pre-Munich United in this unrealistic, patronising, distorted lounge bar manner. The temptation was resisted. I think that's worth noting.

Because does it mean that football is finally following rock music into the subset of things which are allowed to be part of our culture?

Ultimately, I thought the film-makers took their subject seriously. Just that. In the old days, they wouldn't have bothered. Put them into long shorts, Mr Cholmondely-Warner, and let's have a giggle about games teachers while we pass the joint around. It's all suppressed sexuality/Fast Show clip/a genuine expression of working-class etc. doncha know etc etc.

Really, my only gripe was with the closing scene as United wait in the Wembley tunnel and Murphy "sees" the pipesmoking dead. Mawkish and unnecessary, but one bum note in 90 minutes isn't bad.

George S said...

It looks as though we will have to differ on this, Anon. I very much like your idea of the film being about death. It accords quite well with Panther's notion of the film as a form of myth, a simplification of life into one comprehensive but streamlined form.

Two problems arise when you say:

One very important point about the dialogue is that a great deal of it is lifted directly from reported recollections and biography. All of Hardaker, perhaps 10% of Murphy, almost all of the off-pitch Gregg, etc.

First problem: Recollected speech, especially as recollected in books, has already undergone a complex process. It is not raw speech. Raw speech, even when deploying several clichés, has potential for life. The best writers hear the rawness and electrify it through proportion and timing. The words recollected in books by people who are not necessarily outstanding writers - not 'art' writers - will be as prosaic as the rest of the book. Pinter and Beckett may be setting the bar too high, but a good writer will nevertheless jump to a certain height. This lay flat for me.

Second problem: The issue of research is important in documentary but is far less so in art. Art is transformation to the essential, not fidelity to the incidental. If this is art not documentary, as the makers claimed, the shape of Busby's hat is irrelevant except as what structuralists call a sign: 'He is the kind of man who wears that kind of hat'. It is a guide to character. That character has to find his place in art not in documentary. The trouble was that documentary was always in our minds, because of all the reality devices. Had the film continued as it began, with that marvellous image of Charlton and the dead player sitting in the perfectly preserved seat in the snow it might have been art. But it didn't have the courage to go there. It might have tried harder.

I understand the difficulty of documentary expectation versus dramatic realisation, and can see why you are relieved that the film avoided certain clichés about class. I agree it did that. I agree that the Munich crash scene was properly balanced between dream and reality (it was much the best thing in the film for me).

But I still think the play fell between two stools, between myth and document, and wish it had erred more on either side. I wish the dialogue had been less leaden. I wish the questions the dramatis personae raised about loyalty, friendship, hero-worship, conflict, youth, energy, fear, regret and beauty had been more courageously and fully explored.

I may come round to it a little more given time but felt that the laden dialogue was a betrayal of some sort.

Interesting that the play was an hour and a half long - the length of a match - and that it divided exactly into three: half an hour pre-Munich, half-an hour Munich and half an hour post-Munich.

And yes, that last scene was maudlin. We didn't need to be reminded of that.

panther said...

"Art is transformation to the essential": exactly. The most important thing about Busby (surely ?) was not that he wore a coat and a bowler or that he wore a tracksuit. But if he had worn a tracksuit here, in this drama, he would have been too easily confused with Murphy, at least in the early stages.

I liked the way the drama was 90 minutes, thus imitating a game. (Game of two halves, bisected by the crash ?) To explore all those issues of love, loyalty, courage, etc would have taken longer. But I wish it had tried to.