Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Beautiful Game on Celluloid, Part Two

Spoiler Alert: I assume most people have already seen these films, as a result I discuss the plot as much as I can. I will not try to go into every detail but generalize as much as possible.
For this movie, I will avoid comparisons with the Novel, since the structure and format of the book is much different than the movie

Film:   Fever Pitch (1997)
‘Life gets complicated when you love one woman but worship eleven men’, is the tagline from ‘Fever Pitch’. This film is based on Nick Hornby’s groundbreaking Novel of the same name.
The film tells the story of a die-hard Arsenal fan named Paul Ashworth (Colin Firth). The story takes place during the 1988/89 season that Arsenal finally won the League title after an 18-year wait.

We witness Paul’s devotion to Arsenal, as well, as the personal changes to his existence as a fan and a man after he falls in love.
There are also flashbacks that illustrate how Paul’s passion for Arsenal and Football in general is developed.
In the beginning of the film (start of the school year and Football season, 1988/89), we see Paul as a rebel English schoolteacher. He wears a leather jacket and is popular with his students and often discusses the fortunes of his favorite team Arsenal with them.
He also coaches the Boys Soccer Team always wearing his Retro Arsenal jersey. In one scene, his motto is laid out as he tells one of his students that Saturday is the only day that he is NOT a responsible adult.
In contrast, the new teacher Sarah Hughes (Ruth Gemmell) is very uptight, dresses very professionally and is initially disliked by her class.
In addition she is completely indifferent to Football and looks with disdain at Soccer fans.
They each have a close friend to whom they confide. Paul’s friend is Steve (a then-unknown Mark Strong, at least unknown in USA). Steve is Paul’s best friend, drinking buddy, and fellow Arsenal fan. They even play Subbuteo together.
Sarah’s close friend is Jo . She is her roommate, confident and jogging partner.
Through, the aforementioned flashbacks, we get a glimpse of Paul’s childhood. His parents are divorced and initially during his father’s infrequent visits, there is very little connection. His father would like an activity that he can share with his son. In one of his visits his father suggests to take him to an Arsenal match at Highbury, even though, Paul is not a Football fan (yet).
As soon as Paul sits in the stands and views the pitch, his eye light up and is mesmerized. It is clearly the beginning of a beautiful lifelong passion. He is very observant of all the banter in the stands, which includes cursing, shouting, etc. He genuinely seems delighted and at ease in this environment.
It appears that Paul has found an activity that he can share with his father. His father in turn teaches him the finer points of fandom, such as the importance and commitment of supporting a specific team and leaving the stadium a few minutes early to ‘beat the traffic.’

Back to the present, Sarah is the complete opposite of Paul, which means that in the movie universe they must fall in love.
Paul and Sarah are in a fully committed relationship; there are still lingering differences. She notices that Paul is completely involved in Football and as a result is unable to be and act like an adult (even wearing Arsenal boxers) and has no long term goals. He in turn cannot understand that she does not understand this passion and lives a very regimented existence.
Paul’s lack of ambition is exemplified by his indifference to apply for a better paying position within the school since he’s content in earning just enough so that he can attend Football matches and live his life as is.
In another flashback, we see a slightly older teenage Paul now going to Arsenal matches by himself. His father who now seems almost bored to keep taking him to Arsenal matches, tells him to move on from that stage of his life. Paul in a determined fashion responds that he will ‘never get beyond that stage.’
Back to the present (April 1989), Sarah agrees to go to an Arsenal match at Highbury with Paul and Steve. They watch the match from the standing only terraces.
Clearly, she is unaware of what she is in for. She appears uncomfortable with the shouting, insults from the stands, but more importantly she is frightened of all the pushing and shoving and feels unsafe.
This scene in the present is cut back and forth with the teenage Paul on the terraces in 1972, now a full-fledged member of the ‘tribe’. This particular sequence is shot with ‘The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ in the background and ending in crescendo.
In the present, once at home, the events of the Hillsborough disaster are seen on the television. The pair is horrified at the death toll.
Sarah already uncomfortable with her own experience in the terraces asks Paul to not to go to any more matches.
This is where the major rift in the relationship occurs, as he still plans on attending matches. She accuses him of selfishness and still cannot comprehend the extent of his passion for the game.
Paul makes attempts at reconciliation and in the process learns that she is pregnant.
This event appears to change Paul and he is determined to marry and raise his child like a normal adult. He even applies for the vacant teaching position that he had initially snubbed as he now needs the extra income.
He tells Steve that even if Arsenal do not win the League, it would not make a difference, much to Steve’s amazement.
He says that when you have nothing, Arsenal ‘fills the gap’, but he now has a reason to exist.
Unfortunately, he is passed over for the position after an interview with a Board of Governors, where it is implied that his relationship with a fellow teacher was a detriment to his chances. Stephen Rea makes a funny cameo as a member of the Board of Governors and Arsenal fan, who just asks Arsenal and Football related questions during the job interview process.
Paul and Sarah break up again after she realizes that he is less concerned about this job and is more concerned about Arsenal’s loss that may have ruined their title hopes. She feels she cannot build a future with a man whose life revolves around a football team’s fortunes.
With the relationship on a break, it all comes down to the final match of the season. The deciding match vs. Liverpool at Anfield on May 26th, 1989, that Arsenal HAS to win by at least a score of 2-0 to become Champions on goal difference.
A nervous and pessimistic Paul and Steve watch the match at home on the television. Sarah attends a party of her students who are all indifferent to Football. Even though, Sarah used to share these same sentiments, she seems eager to follow the match and know the score.
Not much of a suspense as we all know the outcome, but nevertheless Michael Thomas’ last minute winner and the celebrations are shot in dramatic fashion (Especially Paul and Steve’s celebration).

Afterwards, there is a parade in the street with Arsenal fans celebrating into the night.
In the parade, Paul catches a glimpse of Sarah draped in an Arsenal flag and naturally they make up again for good.
For once She seems to have accepted and understood his passion.
They live Happily ever After and THE END.
Despite, the whole opposites attract formula; ‘Fever Pitch’ is generally enjoyable as Romantic Comedies go.
There are some names of players from the past and present that are thrown around that only a Football knowledgeable audience will recognize.
This inside-knowledge is also required to understand some of the references made, such as comparisons of Sarah to George Graham.
A younger audience, who has grown up on the Internet and matches on cable galore, may not be able to connect as much.
The rest of us, slightly older, there is a universal appeal in the concept of fan culture and genuinely rooting for a team for life.
(And maybe along the way making compromises to our passion and habits to accommodate our loved ones)

1-  In 2005, a Hollywood remake of this was made starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore. Since this was made for an American audience, in the remake, the sport was changed to Baseball.

2- Colin Firth and Mark Strong have appeared together again in two recent films, ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ (with Nicole Kidman) and ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’


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