Friday, October 23, 2009

Girlfight's Foxy Boxing: Possibly the Queerest Straight Romance on Film?

Karyn Kusama's (gorgeous) film Girlfight climaxes with a "gender blind" boxing match, in which the film's central character gets into the ring and boxes her boyfriend. This has got to be one of the most fascinating scenes in a sports movie.

Before I go any farther, let me just say that the New York State Boxing Commission has never authorized gender-blind boxing for men and women in the same weight class. That plot point is a bit of fantasy. Mixed boxing matches do happen, sometimes as exhibition matches and then, of course, as a sub-genre within the erotic entertainment format commonly referred to as "foxy boxing." (Foxy boxing normally features two or more women, but is sometimes staged between men and women.)

Like many sports films, Girlfight centers on an athlete (Diana Guzman, played by Michelle Rodriguez) who works out her anger through her sport, and like many sports films about women, it also charts her entry into a man's world, not as a sex object, but as a competitor. And, of course, like a lot of sports movies centered on women (especially women in masculinized sports) it navigates the subject of female masculinity and queerness by giving the central character a hot featherweight boyfriend (with the girlish name Adrian).

This counterbalances the opening scene in Girlfight, in which with Guzman beats down one girl to protect another - and a later scene which suggests that the hostility between Guzman and her female nemesis at school is underwritten by some sort of romantic history. Given the character's queerness (her active refusal to be "girlie," her macho attitude and protective relationship with women around her) the climactic boxing match between Guzman and her male lover is just plain fascinating.

All along, Guzman demands to be taken seriously. The lone woman training at her gym, she can't box unless the guys box her. But in sparring matches, guys have a really hard time hitting her - getting around their sense of her weakness, but also around their anxiety about what it would mean to engage her and struggle with her strength. The film suggests as well that such an act - a man hitting a woman - calls to mind familiar scenes of domestic violence. None of the guys want to be that man. (Guzman's mother was a victim of her father's brutality, and her desire to box is explicitly cast in terms of her desire to top her father, and too, to ward off the haunting sense of her powerlessness as a child witness to his rage.) It's impressive that the film makes all of this complexity visible for us, without being didactic.

Kate Sekules writes in The Boxer's Heart that as she was learning to box, this - the hesitation to hit a woman - was as much an issue for her as it was for the men in the film. In an interview with David Templeton, she describes the first time she boxed a woman:
It wasn't easy. It having to push through glue to hit her. There was this invisible impediment, almost like someone holding down my elbow. I did hit her, eventually, in that first session. I hit her a lot, but I didn't really lay into her. I never got in a really good shot.
One of the most complex things about heterosexual dynamics (be in romance or sport) is this "glue" - the sense that there is something between men and women, manifesting itself like a protective surface but which is in fact more like a restrictive bubble. The mindset of course is not limited to how men interact with women - it shapes how women interact with women, and think of themselves, too. When Sekules confronts her inhibitions regarding hitting women, she also confronts her inhibitions regarding her own body in relation to others. In essence, she peels that glue off herself. [See also this article about sparring with a professional woman boxer.]

Back to that boxing scene between Rodriguez's character and the boyfriend: throughout the story, he's struggled with her feelings towards her. She's an atypical Latina, una malcriada, and not the sort of girl who is going to prop up one's sense of masculinity by feigning weakness. So when you see him admire her for her skills, when they bond over the grief and glory of training, you start to see an atypical heterosexual romance in which a guy actually likes the toughness in the girl, and decides it's worth it to sort out what that means for him.

I just can't remember the last film I saw that had a heterosexual romance that looked like this.

That boxing match, as the culmination of both their romance and their training, is a strangely queer moment. She actually wins the fight, and they don't break up. It's crazy, hot, and positively utopian.

Made me think that those foxy boxy people must be onto something....

Friday, October 16, 2009

Paris Foot Gay & Creteil Bebel: Homophobia Extraordinary and Ordinary

Last week, Creteil Bebel, an amateur French team, refused to play a league match against Paris Foot Gay - citing a range of reasons, all homophobic. They have since agreed to take the field against PFG, after they were threatened with being banned from the league and made national headlines in France as the homophobic Muslim team (the manager cited the fact that players on his team were "practicing Muslims" to explain the refusal).

I have a couple of thoughts about this interesting story.

1. Paris Foot Gay fields Muslim players, so the impulse to characterize this as a problem between a gay team and a Muslim team is off base, even given the manager's moronic statement. Better to characterize it as a conflict between a gay team, and a homophobic team. Islamophobia is a big part of French culture - supported in part by the representation of Muslims (and Arabs more generally) as backwards women-hating, homophobic fundamentalists. As a gay team with an anti-racist policy (and a multicultural roster), PFG knows this and has been smarter about this issue in its statements than has been the French press (at least as represented by the television broadcasts I could access on youtube).

2. Creteil Bebel has come around, and explained that their objection was less to the fact that PFG is gay, than to the fact that "Gay" is in their name - that they advertise themselves as a political team. Some bloggers are confused by this - in part because it's a load of bull, given the manager's earlier statements. But this is in fact a pretty common reaction to the words "gay" and "lesbian". Just saying them can be a political act. And in the space of football, it is - PFG identifies itself as a gay team in order to both advertise itself as an anti-homophobic team (which gay players may prefer) and also to raise awareness and combat homophobia within the leagues.

3. Somehow the way this story was reported bugged me: Smug media bulletins about this, as if suddenly sports editors care about homophobia - when those very same media outlets ignore an entire sport (women's soccer) because of its own sexism and homophobia. I could be wrong, but I suspect the only reason we are hearing about this is because PFG is an activist team and would have responded to this with a press release. Which is good - it shows you just how much one well-funded, savvy team can accomplish.

Anyway, hooray to PFG for opening up dialogue with a phobic team, and forwarding conversation about the issue within the French leagues. And I'm glad Creteil Bebel changed their minds. Let's hope they have a good game. And sack their manager.

Footnote: Paris Foot Gay is partly sponsored by Agnès B.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Damned United: A Review

Dirty, dirty Leeds. Dirty fucking Leeds. After reading David Peace's novel The Damned UTD these words cycled through my head for days. They work as an obsessive refrain in Peace's account of Brian Clough's infamous 44 days as the manager of (dirty, dirty) Leeds.

I knew nothing about Clough, Leeds, and this bizarre story before reading Peace's novel - that I enjoyed the book, and felt as if Clough himself, in all his puerile genius, had wormed his way into my head is as good a testimony as I can give to the intensity and distinctiveness of Peace's writing.

Like any fan of a novel, I reacted to the news that it was being turned into a movie with suspicion. In the movie theater, a couple near me asked if this was a "sports movie, you know, like an underdog story." The answer to this is, No. This is a story about a guy who was an underdog when he took over Derby County and led them from the bottom of the second division to the top of the first in two years. (Imagine!) When Don Revie, manager of Clough's hated Leeds UTD, was promoted to England manager (a job Clough wanted, but never got), Leeds asked Clough to take over the storied side. Which he did, and bungled - he was sacked after 44 days of antagonism and controversy. He was an outsider at this point in his life, sure, but he was already pegged as a football genius.

So, there is no underdog in this story - no glorious win. Just the story of an impudent, self-centered (gifted) bastard so driven by hate that he takes over a team in order to take them apart.

The film is gentler than the book. (A film which stuck to the maniacal tone of Peace's writing would, in fact, be almost unwatchable.) The screenplay splits its time between Clough's Oedipal struggle against Revie, and his friendship with his partner, the coach Peter Taylor (Taylor refused to move to Leeds with him). Their relationship is explicitly cast in terms of love - the film plays with their dynamic as a couple, and this is where any of the tenderness and emotion in the film is expressed.

I loved the film. But I also love English weather and Thomas Hardy novels. It's visually gorgeous, but everything is gray, wet, and dilapidated. If there is paint on the walls, it's peeling. If there is wallpaper, it's greasy. Glass is grimey. Fields are muddy. Ceilings are low and stained. Early on, there is a lovely scene of Clough, desperate to impress, trying to tidy up the facilities at Derby before an early match against Leeds - polishing tarnished brass, scrubbing blacked grout. Even the football is dirty - all I remember about the games in the film is mud, rain, and blood.

Given this, that refrain "dirty, dirty Leeds" takes on an added importance. Everything around Clough feels shabby and worthless when compared to what Revie has. Clough is more boy than man, invested in a recognition (from Revie) that he'll never get (Revie refuses the hand Clough offers him, not in a deliberate slight but because he didn't notice Clough, who was cloaked in insignificance). As we watch Clough trying to scrub away the dirt of a working class world (his world), we see a man who on some level feels he will never be good enough, a man incapable, too, of being happy with what he has. And of course, this restlessness, this discontent was behind the arrogance and ambition that made him such a legend.

[I expanded this review for Pitch Invasion - you can read the revision here.]

Friday, October 2, 2009

'The Golden Age' and 'Goal Dreams': Two Football Documentaries, Two Very Different Pictures

"The Golden Age" is a Queens, NY league of mostly Latino players over 40 - it is also the title of a brilliantly filmed and edited documentary celebrating the global game and its particularly migratory character within the US. The film makers manage to capture the skill and energy of the players who slog out their season in Corona Park/Flushing Meadows, on the grounds of the 1964 Worlds Fair - I have never seen a documentary about the grassroots game that actually captures what it feels like to play and participate in a league like this one. And the documentary fleshes this out with terrific portraits of la cultura futbolística in the countries in which many of these guys grew up (Chile, Paraguay, Colombia). In many ways, the hour-long film is a pure luxury. You can watch it at

The film-makers are the first to confess they don't speak Spanish - and this makes me wonder if this isn't in part why the league drama with which the film ends isn't explored in more detail (most of the league's teams walk out of the playoffs, accusing the league organizers of favoritism and corruption). Speaking from my own experience (which includes this linguistic limit), local leagues are tough, dense and complex scenes - we certainly glimpse this in The Golden Age, and it's where the rose colored glasses begin to slip off. This is where tougher stories emerge - these leagues are sights of incredible social stability for people living in increasingly precarious conditions, they are the platforms for consciousness raising and community building, but they are also sites of petty exploitation and steady conflict with, oh, nearly everything one might expect (park officials, property developers, ordinary greed, group dynamics). But these points are made by a viewer who really just wanted more, more, more. [Just learned that the film on is a short version of a feature length film - this explains a lot!] It is an achingly beautiful portrait of the grassroots game and the pleasures it offers its players.

Goal Dreams (2006) follows the Palestinian national soccer team as its organizers try to pull a team together for a 2006 World Cup qualifying match against Uzbekistan. There isn't much to romance in this story. Players are pulled from all over the globe (Chile, Kuwait, Sweden, Lebanon, the US). They train in Egypt, where they wait for a dozen players from Gaza who are held up for weeks as they are unable to cross the border. Because movement between the West Bank and Gaza, and between cities on the West Bank is nearly impossible, putting a team together from within Palestine (which, furthermore, had no league at the time) seemed unthinkable.

This is a sobering film of a team with next to no resources - as much as one wants to make an uplifting story out of their plight, you can't. As the film progresses, the enterprise takes on a depressing hopelessness - players show up looking glum and the Austrian coach asks "where's your smile?" The Palestinian players tell the translator that five of their friends were killed in an air strike during the night.

Players talk about the impossibility of playing together on a team where the language barriers are so intense - the Palestinians from outside the region were born and raised in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. and have no common tongue. Players from Gaza and the West Bank spend weeks in limbo waiting to cross the border while their teammates train without them. There is a cringe worthy sound bite from FIFA chairman Gerome Campagne who explains FIFA's refusal to postpone the match against Uzbekistan with these words: "What is important is [for FIFA] to not be mixed up in political issues." FIFA, furthermore, only postpones matches when there is a "force majeure" - the occupation of Palestine and the nightmare it produces for its citizens is not, in their view, a "force majeure." In the end, after Isreal delayed half the team's departure from Gaza, and then refused to allow exit visas for a number of players, they lost 0-3.

The team's organizers have reconsidered their whole approach. Until very recently, players still couldn't train or play matches in Palestine - and even now, with a home stadium, negotiating travel to this stadium remains an obstacle. But the current roster consists largely of Palestinian players from within the country, and the team - as well as Palestinian football - seems increasingly stable. Or at least more stable than it had been, which isn't saying much.
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