Setting Aside the Script

Whenever I’m feeling a bit lost in the woods, a scene from Conan the Barbarian pops into my head. In it, Conan is receiving the brief philosophical portion of his Barbarian training program. He’s sitting around the dinner table with some other would-be warriors. One of them (a philosopher-king?) asks a simple question: “What is best in life?” Some half-wit with a Fu Manchu pipes up, saying something about riding a horse with the wind in his hair. “Wrong!” yells the wise man. He turns to his star pupil. Conan will know the right answer (even if he plagiarizes it from Genghis Khan).

“Conan, what is best in life?”
“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” [1])

I suppose I could blame Donald Trump for my trip down Barbarian lane the other day, but really it was the preschool applications. My wife Emily and I have been filling these out lately, and we often seem to be answering a version of the Barbarian question: What is best in life? What do you want for your child? Preschool applications are places where, sadly unlike much of the rest of our social lives, we can conjure up utopian arrangements and indulge our greatest ideas of human flourishing. It’s the glorious pipe dream of early child education: Make the children safe, loving, playful, creative, and free, and they will transform the world. We will all be free!

In most cases, I’m happy to have a moment to think about what is best in life. I like to think about Freedom, even if, especially these days, it sends me spiralling into despair. But preschool applications in Brooklyn are not just chances for utopian recalibrations; they are also competitive sport, and I can’t help feeling an anxiety that I am not providing Augie with The Best (however defined) and, even worse, that he is not the Best (however defined). One application asks me, “What would you like your child to achieve in a year here at Open HoneycombBirdLove Playschool?”

Nothing. That’s what I want to write. A three-year old shouldn’t “accomplish” anything. He should just play. Play is something that most of us seem to  agree on. All the schools talk about it. Play is the conduit of all the good potential of the world. But just like the application process, which mixes its idealism with barbarism, so often does play. Now I’m thinking of sports — structured, competitive play. Sometimes, usually when I’m walking nowhere in nice weather, I believe in a purer version of Play, one that’s not about crushing one’s enemies, one that has no enemies at all. [2] Then what pops into my mind is not Conan, but Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow. Galeano begins gloomily. “The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty,” he writes.  The capitalist desire for efficiency, profit, and purpose has ruined his favorite sport. And yet, he muses:

Luckily on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee, and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.

Sports hold, for us all, two competing narratives, triumph and liberation. But the latter isn’t much of a narrative at all. Free play “sets aside the script,” as Galeano says. It is improvisatory and often fleeting. Sports movies tend to emphasize the triumph part instead. They like to invest us in winning, particularly winning against all odds. They like the underdog who works hard for a goal, becomes champion, and gets the girl (or defeats the evil Snake King who killed his mother and father right in front of him while he was a child). But after winning, then what? And what about the losers? Don’t they matter?

I was thinking about all this, about Conan and Galeano and Augie and preschool, as I watched a different kind of sports movie the other day, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits. It’s a quiet film about an adolescent African-American girl who practices boxing with her brother and then decides to join the dance team. We see neither a boxing match nor a  dance competition, even though we know that the dancers, The Lionesses, are city champions. The competitions we might have seen are actually canceled mid-movie because some of the older, popular dancers have succumbed to mysterious seizures (just as the real twitching first affected popular cheerleaders in LeRoy, NY). The fact that this mass psychogenic illness is only a side-plot of the movie speaks to its subversion of traditional storytelling: This is a sports movie without competition; a coming-of-age movie without a love interest; a thriller without much fear; and a poor black girl’s story without a lesson.  

The Fits takes place almost entirely in a drab Cincinnati community center, and contains little dialogue. The static, claustrophobic camerawork reminds us of that horror: adolescence. But it also evokes particular social constraints of Toni (the tomboy with the androgynous name) and her friends, so that one could read their sudden wild bodily eruptions as symptoms of the difficulties they face, or as a response to those difficulties, a kind of ecstatic escape. It’s hard to say exactly what the fits are, though, and what might be causing them, because Holmer and her screenwriters keep the focus on Toni’s daily life. Behind her, the fits seem alarming, but not that bad. People seem worried, but not that worried. The world seems dismal, but maybe… well… is it?

Several scenes in the film, particularly a wonderful solo boxing-dance that Toni performs on a highway overpass, present dance as defiance. At the same time, it is play, the kind that looks a bit like freedom.  The film ends with the most powerful, and yet ambiguous, version of this play, a dance montage that brings all of its disparate energies into one: solos and formations, industrial grays and bright shining costumes, boxing and otherworldly twitching. Toni seems to have succumbed to the disease, but succumbed is the wrong word. She has taken the disease on. The music repeats “must we choose to be slaves to gravity?” The fits say no.

I like the idea that is implicit in this scene: Toni is playing with her identities, joining with other girls and separating from them all at once. And such play, the movie insists, is not simple and clear, but always multiple, always slightly unreadable, maybe a little fucked-up. I like too that the ethereal music in this scene is combined with the sound of heavy breathing and bodies clumping. It’s a reminder that transcendence is hard work; people are heavy. And, in fact, transcendence is not really transcendence. The ending may be triumphant (a non-competitive triumph!), but the movie is not, at least not for me. As much as I love Toni’s dance, I can’t help wishing that she could do more than shake. There are other kinds of freedom.

My son Augie will have it easier than Toni, I imagine. He will be a white man in a white man’s world with a lot of resources at his disposal.  I doubt diseased shaking will be his central, or only, form of imaginative play. Still, as much as we try to create (and pay lots of money for) an educational space in which he can be confident and creative, I realize there are limits to the engineering of playfulness, just as there are limits to its effects. The movie reminds me that play is everyone’s, and power, at least certain kind of power, is everyone’s too. But the transformation of a beautiful moment into a beautiful world, or into a pleasant, relatively free and fulfilling life, is dependent on so many things, including race, class, and gender. Always, hanging behind our ideas of freedom is the reality of competition, which is almost never fair. The world, like most play, is not free.

The whole time I was watching The Fits, I was thinking about another nominal sports movie too, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! It’s a radically different movie from The Fits — about mostly white baseball players at a Texas college in the 1980s — and yet I kept asking myself the follow-up question that the title begs: everybody wants some of what? The obvious answer might be sex[3], but that big double exclamation, along with the strange countless plural pronoun “some,” prompts big preschool-application, Conan-like questions. Maybe everybody wants some freedom or some Pig Burgers[4]

In truth, what first made me connect these two very different films was their shared disinterest in triumphalism. It’s another sports movie unconcerned with winning, and I suppose, amid the rat-race of preschool “achievement,” I was looking for some un-winning-ness. Like The Fits, Everybody Wants Some!! is about a person joining a team that we don’t see compete at all. Instead, like many Linklater movies, it follows aimless people talking aimlessly about their aims. In other words, the movie is about the narratives that we spin around play, not the limited narratives of sport (win/lose) but the larger narratives of life, narratives that themselves can be a kind of play. For some of the jocks in the film, sports provide a simple answer to their big questions. Early on in the movie, as the players walk through campus, one of them, one of the dumber ones, seems genuinely baffled by the strange, non-jock students he sees all around him.  “Who are these people?” he says, “This guy with the backpack? This dude on the porch?” What are they doing in college if not playing sports? “All these people,” he says sadly, “will never be more than some dude doing some job just like everybody else.”

But most of the jocks don’t rest on this existential arrogance. They know that not everyone wants to play baseball. They know too that the baseball life won’t last. Just after the conversation about regular dudes, Jake, the movie’s main character, runs into an old high school teammate who is no longer a baseball player. He’s now a punk (We can tell by the uneven haircut and the anarchy jacket), living in what seems like a punk frat house. There is a moment where you think the jocks might turn in disgust and that we will see two roads diverged in the woods: Dude Street and Dissident Street. But no. The baseball players change their clothes and head to a punk club. They’re adaptable.

“I’m starting to have an identity crisis here,” Jake says, as they survey the slam-dancing horde. “The last three nights we danced at a disco to total mindless disco music. We danced the cotton-eyed joe in kicker attire, and here we are punks for a night. It sort of begs the question about who we really are.”

His friend, the philosophical Finn, says something about evolution. Men will do anything to pick up chicks. Everybody wants some. But this isn’t the whole story. Moments later they hear a song they like (a punk version of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme) and jump into the fray. It’s clear that they aren’t there for any particular goal. They are just curious. Identity play may be easier for them than for Toni because they are college students on athletic scholarships. In other words, they are privileged. Linklater doesn’t want that privilege to be a bad thing, though. He’s focused on what he thinks everybody wants: the chance to continually re-make oneself.

I kept thinking, though, that something terrible was going to happen, that the men surely would become more cruel, that someone would be abused. That’s the Dude Street I know; it’s lined with dicks. There are moments when abuse does bubble up: the bros flick each other’s fingers till they bleed; they smash ping-pong paddles in anger; they watch women mud-wrestling[5] But even the mud wrestling doesn’t seem that grossly misogynistic.  It’s a strangely utopian vision of masculine competitiveness.

And, even though we don’t see a college class until the last scene of the movie, it’s a utopian model of education — not one that’s much help to me, though, as I prepare to send Augie off into the social world. I fill out applications hoping he’ll be “accepted” somewhere he can feel safe, confident, and free, where he will be more concerned with play than competition, where he will be open to other lives and other people, where he won’t worry about psychogenic illness, and where he won’t be a dick. I’m not sure there’s any alchemy that can conjure this utopia for each student and then enable them to carry it with them into elementary school and beyond. But I suppose some options are better than others. Some offer the a greater illusion of control over the forces of duty and conflict. We keep our fingers crossed. And then we apply for financial aid. Playschool is expensive, which brings up another problem: as we yearn for utopia, we recreate class divisions. Freedom is a luxury. But hopefully Augie won’t learn that for a while, and will never accept it.  Hopefully, instead, he will learn to think about ‘What is best in life?’ so that he can resist those who would try to impose their ideas of ‘the best’ upon him.

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  1. [1]The quote that the screenwriters (including John Milius and a young Oliver Stone) were probably parroting is: “The greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.” This has been attributed to Genghis Khan, but is probably apocryphal. According to Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan: The Making of the Modern World, Muslims, often enslaved by the Mongol emperor, portrayed him as even more predatory than he was, and Genghis Khan encouraged these representations to instill fear. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PQ6335puOc
  2. [2]Anyone with a toddler has seen kids playing totally weird, immersive ways, singing nonsense songs to no one as if in a dream. These are sports dream, a young Lionel Messi juggling: https://youtu.be/lpaEDWm9Izg?t=1m18s
  3. [3]The title is borrowed from a Van Halen song which ends, “Look, I’ll pay for it, what the fuck?”
  4. [4]“Everybody Wants Some” was also the slogan for the fictional fast food restaurant Pig Burgers in the 1985 movie Better Off Dead, which included this animated music video, a strange amalgam of sexual frustration and consumer alienation. Check out the poster for Pig Burgers before the burgers come alive. As John Cusack looks at it, he says, “Everybody wants some. I’ll show you what everybody wants,” and then he cackles. Weird. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxZy3Tr2wQM.
  5. [5]They seem particularly abusive to a hick character they call Buford, but the cultural politics of 1980s East Texas (Linklater played baseball to Sam Houston State) are completely lost on me so I can’t really parse the aggression. For his part, AO Scott agrees that the film is utopian.

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