John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

I did not hesitate to head to the theater for a screening of this 2018 documentary, directed by Julien Faraut—in spite of its brutal title: John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection—once I saw a brief description that said it contained 16mm film footage—because even if edited and projected via a digital format, a movie originating on grainy film is a beautiful thing to take in on a big screen. I was not disappointed, and in fact the entire venture is more than a little bold and “punk rock” in its approach, which is not only appropriate, but feels essential. And for me, personally, a good way to spend an hour and a half thinking deeply about my problems with: documentary filmmaking, professional tennis, celebrity, and sports in general—including my own participation in sports, documentary filmmaking, art, and punk rock.

Apparently, if I understood this correctly, this film was born out of the existence of hours and hours of filmed tennis footage that was intended for instructional use on the sport, technique, and movement. Whatever the origin, there is this ridiculously good footage from multiple angles and close-ups, some slow motion, most with sound, all focusing on John McEnroe on the clay courts of Roland-Garros. It's the best tennis footage I've ever seen, and we start out by examining McEnroe's movement, his technique, and his game, and then later getting into his personality, temperament—and temper. I cannot imagine someone with even no interest in tennis—or even sports—not getting fully engrossed in this film's approach; though some with an ultra-reverent view of the sport might be put off by the sheer extremes of weirdness the filmmaker experiments with (which I'd be criminal to let on to, for anyone yet to see this movie. What's fun is how it keeps surprising you). I loved it all, even the stuff that maybe didn't work, because, maybe it did work. I loved it. The one film I thought about was that odd documentary about football player Zinedine Zidane (Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait) (2006) I saw a few years back, which focused on Zidane during one match, filmed in real time with 17 cameras.

Sometimes I feel like I hate documentaries—when I hear that word I feel empty in the pit of my stomach—even though some of my favorite-ever movies are documentaries, and there are certainly some great sports ones—Hoop Dreams and Senna come to mind. But a lot more, too, and really, I love even lesser sports documentaries just because I love sports so much. I also hate sports. I love PBS, in general, but I hate the PBS approach and vibe, in general, and when I was thinking about this I thought about how I believe it was the writer, Frank Kogan, who used the term “PBS” when talking about music (though it could pertain to anything) that has an overly safe, studied, and academically accepted flavor (if I'm both remembering and interpreting this correctly). This was from a long-running and really great zine Kogan used to produce (that I contributed to) called Why Music Sucks. I have never met Frank Kogan, but it occurred to me that I was first in touch with him around the time McEnroe's career started its inevitable downhill period (music and sports are remarkably the same in this way, but for much different reasons), and there may have been a time when I thought they were the same person. We are all roughly the same age. Frank Kogan recorded some of the best punk music I've even heard, but then seemed to refuse to pursue it, instead preferring to write about things that constantly challenged and confounded his contemporaries. I have still not read all of his book, Real Punks Don't Wear Black (2006), but in the picture on the cover (one of two I've ever seen of him) he's got that McEnroe hair (where you get the impression that hair is just another annoyance). Then came Andre Agassi who just shaved his head after brutalizing us for awhile with the full-Eighties look. His battle was with DayGlo and the Wimbledon dress code. People said Agassi was punk rock, but I dismissed him as new wave (that sell-out, corporate dilution of punk rock) (But loved him as a tennis player!) Real punks don't wear DayGlo, or black. McEnroe was the real punk. But he wasn't either, really, and I'm sure McEnroe and Frank Kogan are nothing whatsoever alike (though I like to think, both a little like me).

I have often thought that the two sports that are least alike while being the most alike are boxing and tennis; this is very obvious, I know, and also, useless, and I'm right now rejecting that idea. But you know, different and alike. But where they are most alike is where all sports are alike, and that is the people who win the most are the people who want to win more than the others—what they call the “killer instinct.” (They've tried to export that idea to business, as well, but I call that greed.) You think, well, everyone wants to win, don't they? No, they do not. Not that much. Most people, more than anything else, want to be loved, and in most cases, wanting to win and wanting to be loved are at odds with each other. And it's this uncomfortable area of the intersection of the two where I find sports at their worst. Anyway, McEnroe certainly had the killer instinct, and it's that, along with the examination of the physical aspect of his game that this movie focuses on. First we see some of the most detailed and intimate tennis footage I've ever watched; I'd have still liked the movie if that was all it was. But then we get to his arguments with the officials, usually about whether a ball hit the court in or out of bounds. This was before the electric eye and digital replay we have today. I always felt that probably McEnroe was right; obviously his eye and senses were as acute as anyone in that stadium. But he couldn't let a bad call go, and thus the tantrums. Or else, that was just part of his game, in a larger sense—and that's what we're asked to decide. And then, also interesting to me, was his displeasure with being interviewed, filmed, and recorded—including run-ins with the very people whose footage we are watching and listening to. This is all great stuff.

This will be an easy movie to miss at the theater, but when you watch it at home, go for a big screen because it has a close to square aspect ratio. Then turn up the sound and immerse yourself (maybe people do this; I tend to be a halfway attentive home viewer). I promised to keep these movie reviews shorter, but there is one more thing I wanted to add, just because I alluded to my personal problems at the start, here. I have always been a big sports fan, but it's slowly slipping away because I think all popular spectator sports are declining due to their own greed. There is too much money involved. Sports gambling doesn't help that. High tech training, performance enhancement drugs and techniques, and our increasingly suicidally extreme culture doesn't help. But still, I've always liked watching sports on TV as something to do when you finish everything else you want to do that week. But now you have to take too much of an active roll; i.e., a second job to be able to afford the pay channels to watch what you used to just have to endure TV commercials to watch. The film's final, extended sequence is this famous French Open match between McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, which I actually remember watching, somewhere, in 1984. It's kind of a haunting way to end this movie. Why did McEnroe lose? Is it always “because the other guy was better”—or was there another reason?

It really made me think about my own participation in sports and what an asshole I was sometimes. My highest point, at least on a success level, was the mile run, in high school, and I very well remember the point at which the idea of competing started to freak me out. I guess I didn't like myself as a killer, and even with something like distance running, you're not just racing yourself and the clock; there is also the sense of destroying your opponent. But to this day I still think back with a tinge of regret to my last races, thinking, “I could have won them all.” All I had to do was run faster than the other guys—I could have never lost. The body would have done it. It's always the mind that gives in first. Is it because we're civilized that we give in, ultimately? Knowing that, living in the world, what we must do, as a human, is make room for other people? In the end we're either humans or monsters, and to be human, ultimately, is to lose.

Randy Russell 9.18.18