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October 3, 2017 | Nonfiction

Hockey in movies that aren't about hockey

Joe Sacksteder

Hockey in movies that aren't about hockey photo

Love Story (1970, dir. Arthur Hiller)

It’s comical that the rich kid with a building at Harvard named after his family is a hockey bruiser while the baker’s daughter not good enough to marry into the Barrett family is a classical pianist who studies Renaissance polyphony at Radcliffe. True, hockey is an expensive sport to play, but it’s surprising how malleable it proves when used to signify class. There’s of course the “cakeater” Hawks in The Mighty Ducks versus the ramshackle District 5. And in 1981’s Miracle on Ice, much of the hostility between the Minnesota and East Coast players hinges on a perception of class difference, some of the Minnesota guys checking out their counterparts’ blue jeans: “Run you fifty, sixty bucks at least.”

Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) plays the rich kid version of hockey in Love Story—but not necessarily in the rich kid manner his overbearing father would approve of. Namely, Oliver’s a fighter. Until he discovers revenge-marrying into a lower class, it’s his best outlet for the exaggerated anger he feels towards his father. It’s hard also not to read the physicality of hockey as a homoerotic channeling of libidinal frustration, replete as the film is with sports terminology used as double entendre. The intensity of his premeditated brawl with Francis LaPierre and the other “Montreal faggots” of Cornell makes me wonder what relationship the Love Story title is even referring to. When Oliver returns to his dorm room after the Dartmouth game, some of his friends are playing cards, including a young Tommy Lee Jones who manages to look just as craggy and world-weary as his 2017 self, and they tease him about the assist he notched being “On Cavalleri”—a pun that works well for scoring but not really for assists.

Maybe Love Story should be commended for complicating class stereotypes, but the overall effect is confusing, as if the film’s wealthy Barrett family was written by a poor person, its lower class Cavilleri family by a rich person, its whole star-crossed premise transplanted from some other country some other century. I know it’s hopelessly naïve, but I kept thinking—for all the ways America might suck right now—aren’t we at least supposed to be the country who doesn’t care about this shit?

 

The Piano Teacher (2001, a Michael Haneke film)

Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) is a tightly wound, sexually repressed conservatory piano teacher living with her emotionally abusive mother. Her acts of increasingly severe masochism—sniffing cum rags in a porno viewing booth, cutting her genitals with a razor, spying on a couple at a drive-in while pissing beside their car—culminate in the ultimate act of degradation: sex with a hockey player. Fans of Love Story, the members of your writing workshop find it less than believable that Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), Erika’s piano student and lover, would be both a hockey player and a pianist, but if my life is proof of anything, it’s that a person can fail at both high culture and low.    

In movies featuring piano, we pianists watch poised for telltale cuts from virtuosic fingers to a more famous person’s furrowed brows and wrongly twitching shoulders. We see the actor’s left hand dally in the low registers as the soundtrack explores only the upper. Their hands are like mouths in a poorly dubbed film. Or we’re impressed, the camera carefully panning from playing fingers to arms to the star’s face in order to showcase the double threat’s dedication to their role. We know that Geoffrey Rush and Tom Hulce and even Elijah Wood in that Phonebooth-but-a-piano film no one saw—they were the real deal. In Love Story, we notice that the harpsichord part gets substantially easier for the few seconds the camera lingers on Ali MacGraw’s hands during the Bach concerto.           

Few pianists subject hockey skills to such scrutiny. But as one of the few voices that can speak authoritatively about both, I can assure you: Benoît Magimel knows piano—hockey… not so much. The same goes for everyone involved with the film. Regarding the first brief hockey scene: we don’t walk on concrete with skates, we don’t play hockey on rinks that don’t have boards, and despite a general animosity, we don’t skate circles around poor figure skaters to bully them off our ice. Even stranger is the later scene in which we actually see a sport resembling hockey transpire. Why are there fifteen people on the ice? Why are both teams wearing black jerseys? Where’s the other team’s goal/goalie? We hear a whistle to end the game, but the referee remains phantasmal. The halfhearted celebration by one team and the immediate exit by both teams from the ice surface make even the genital mutilation scene appear elegant by comparison. 

Erika’s attempt to give Walter a postgame blowjob is likewise stilted and gross. Hockey players have an insight into the difficulty of this arrangement that other viewers might lack: as we make our way into the locker room and begin to get undressed, we are simply not our most representative selves. By which I mean, we are tiny and shriveled. Maybe it’s the cup, maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s because our blood is urgently needed elsewhere—but achieving an erection seems like the fantasy power of some creature listed in a medieval bestiary. Screwing even under ideal postgame conditions would require several minutes of coaxing life back into our genitals.

Irony: the sweaty hockey player telling the piano teacher, “You know, you really stink.”

 

For Your Eyes Only (1981, dir. John Glen)

With approximately 24 James Bond films at this point, exotic settings and recreational activities start to get recycled, and For Your Eyes Only hits three of the big ones: scuba diving in the tropics, gambling in a casino, and skiing in the Alps. The Cortina segment, featuring bobsled, biathlon, ski jumping, figure skating, and, briefly, hockey, seems determined to hijack as many winter sports as possible. The segue to hockey occurs when Bond (this is a Roger Moore one) goes to “say goodbye” to a figure skater by the name of Bibi Dahl (Lynn Holly-Johnson), a girl young enough that, despite her sexual aggression, even James Bond chooses temperance. She is the “protégé” of our eventual villain, a smuggler named Kristatos (Julian Glover) who’s driven by a desire for Bibi to win gold at the Olympics and then have sex with him.     

The end of her practice session is signaled by two hockey players plus a goalie pushing a net onto the ice and starting to skate around. As soon as Bibi is out of earshot, the rink’s lights go dim and the three players leave behind their semblance of warming up, swarming around Bond and attempting to kill him via, yes, body checks and flying skate blade kicks. They’re actually pretty decent skaters, but Bond should have been tipped off by the fact that they’re wearing these, like, Deatheater masks instead of normal cages. There’s something cyborg and anonymous about hockey players—this is why in movies they take off their helmets way more frequently than hockey players do in real life. But it’s a getup that’s well suited for the facelessness of the traditional henchman.       

After weathering a few good checks, Bond is able to wrest a stick away from the goalie and smack two of the players into the net, dispatching the final henchman by climbing onto the Zamboni and dealing him a vehicular check that likewise causes the goon to end up tangled in the wreckage of the goal. With each netted stooge, a buzzer goes off and a cutaway to the scoreboard tallies a goal for Bond. I guess this is why they bothered to bring the net out in the first place—and why someone left the Zamboni parked on the ice surface.

In the book S/Z, Roland Barthes’s critical deconstruction of Balzac, Barthes jettisons Aristotle’s narrative logic for what he calls “logical paste.” Regarding the “everything holds together” compliment we might pay a successful story, Barthes sees something closer to desperation: “The discourse carries this principle to the point of obsession; it assumes the careful and suspicious mien of an individual afraid of being caught in some flagrant contradiction; it is always on the lookout and always, just in case, preparing its defense against the enemy that may force it to acknowledge the scandal of some illogicality, some disturbance of ‘common sense.’” What comes first, the filmmakers’ desires for wintry Alpinicity, the notion of a slutty figure skater in bondage, or the narrative’s “natural” evocation of both setting and girl? The genesis is lost to time, but it is plain to see that a net and a Zamboni are situated on the ice just for the sake of this slapstick.

There exists an even more ghastly question that haunts my waking dreams: What phantom hand is running the scoreboard? Who’s making the buzzer buzz?           

Then the scene is over and the movie goes on like the ambush never happened, as if it wasn’t even orchestrated by the villain but was all just a big misunderstanding.

 

North Country (2005, dir. Niki Caro)

The first hockey scene in this movie shows every player on a youth team vaulting over the boards onto the ice to the sound of enthusiastic cheering. Because it immediately cuts to gameplay, rather than, say, warm-ups, there’s this confusing moment of: Okay, why is everyone on the ice at the same time? Also, the team has giant numbers on both the fronts and the backs of their jerseys, which is really more of a football thing.

But what else can you expect when they let a woman direct a major Hollywood movie?

In all seriousness, North Country is one of the more compelling portrayals of hockey I’ve seen in a movie that isn’t about hockey. Because: the hockey isn’t about hockey either. Or at least not just hockey. Like the scene in which the team refuses to pass the puck to Sammy, the son of Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), because of the necessary hell she’s raising at the mine. Here we see how kids replay adult dynamics during sporting events. And the spats that break out in the stands and parking lot prove that the spectators aren’t just spectators, that they have a game of their own. Tempering this cynicism about the sport is the character of Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a former high school hockey hero who has taken a break from his job as a New York lawyer to get back in touch with his roots at just the moment Josey Aimes is in need of a good lawyer. It’s while skating lazy solo laps on the rink of his childhood and firing pucks at an empty net that Bill summons the courage to help Josey. Sports thus becomes meditation rather than competition—or, rather, sports helps direct his sense of competition towards real-world justice.

 

Strange Brew (1983, dir. Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas)

This film itself is a odd mixture of narrative ingredients, drawing on such popular cinematic staples as futuristic blood sports (Rollerball, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and The Blood of Champions), “ghost in the machine” tropes (Ghost in the Machine, Virtuosity, Lawnmower Man, and that X-Files episode about the home security system that wants to kill everyone), and the overused plot point of asylum patients controlled by beer additives and synth music to test some hazy world domination plot involving hockey. We see Brewmeister Smith (Max von Sydow) coercing two hockey teams into some significant goaltender interference, and then a map of the world with red dots representing, I guess, cities that enjoy drinking Elsinore Beer. But, really, what’s our villain’s endgame here?

Despite The Guardian’s failure to include Strange Brew in its gallery, “Thy Name is Woman: Female Hamlets from Sarah Bernhardt to Maxine Peake,” the film somehow finds a way to include a feminist reworking of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy in the character of beer heiress Pam Elsinore (Lynne Griffin). There’s some 1984 in there as well.

A feature-length adaptation of an SCTV skit that drew most all of its humor from Canadian stereotypes, it was inevitable that the exploits of Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) would include hockey. What’s most notable about the hockey footage in Strange Brew is the equipment. It’s common that the futuristic armor in sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s looks suspiciously similar to modified hockey equipment—even Alien is guilty. The Mutants of 2051 A.D., Bob and Doug’s super low budget film-within-a-film, nods to this tendency, girding Bob in a helmet and jock strap to face post apocalyptic, fleshy-headed-mutant dangers. Strange Brew, however, is an example of this borrowing in reverse; despite no real need to dress the mind-controlled asylum patients in anything but normal hockey gear, the film can’t help itself from going all Star Wars—storm trooper white for one team, Darth Vader black for the other.

Like so many sci-fi cinematic predictions, the future is shinier but less functional. In the future, equipment will consist of plastic segments riveted together with no apparent regard for kinesiology, silver knobs of unclear purpose will dot our spinal chords like the umbilical ports from The Matrix, and elbow pads will not protect the elbows. Most inexplicable of all, hockey players will be wearing this, like, codpiece thing… but on our lower stomachs. As in For Your Eyes Only, hockey cages will evolve into something more Jason Voorheesian. Workplace automation will replace even hockey referees with puck dropping machines designed by Rube Goldberg.

But at least the boards will be pallets of beer.

 

Manchester by the Sea (2016, a picture by Kenneth Lonergan)

I’ve never been confident in my grasp of the objective correlative, but the hockey scrap between Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges) and an unnamed teammate moments before he finds out his father is dead condenses the whole movie and its irrational, self-destructive male characters into one moment of violence and ensuing grief. It’s also a fairly good sign that Patrick is on track to becoming as messed up as the uncle who has come bearing the bad news, Lee (Casey Affleck). I’m also a hockey referee, and Lee is exactly the shithead I would spend all game worrying about, angered by the slightest slight, eager to prove his manliness with his fists. The film uses this stereotype of hockey players not only to add yet another signifier of Massachusettsness to the accents and the snow and the title of the film, but also as a representation of the embattled male psyche lashing out in misdirection.

As a character, Lee has good reason to be angry: after accidentally burning down his own house, killing his two daughters and ruining his marriage, his brother has died from a heart attack, leaving Lee the unwitting and unfit guardian of a sixteen-year-old nephew who’s maturing into the same brand of asshole Lee sees hungover in the mirror every morning. It’s your typical Hemingway iceberg story, except that viewers are shown the traumatic events via flashback at pretty much the very moment they become relevant—which takes from the iceberg gimmick both the manipulativeness that makes it insufferable for anyone who’s survived an undergraduate creative writing workshop but also the sense of mystery that is it’s primary allure. Manchester is also a sort of double iceberg; beginning the movie, we think The Very Sad Thing is going to be dealing with the death of Lee’s brother, but then when we find out why else Lee is so angry… it’s almost like the iceberg as a whole is just the tip of some larger concretion that has found yet another surface below which to veil most of its mass from scrutiny.

The hockey fight is actually one of the only warranted Chandler altercations in the whole movie; the check #13 in gray deals Patrick is so awkward and behind-the-play that an ass-kicking is a totally sage response. Why’s the coach yelling at Patrick? He wasn’t the one who started shit. Maybe a sequel will explore the trauma turducken in #13’s past that causes him to act like such a dickhead. Granted, Patrick’s “Fuck my fucking ass” is a weird imperative outside of porno, but his coach’s profanity hangup is baffling to me. I’ve never met a hockey coach who does anything aside from cultivating in his players an abundant vocabulary of colorful language. And I live in Utah.

 

The Town (2010, dir. Ben Affleck)

There was a sign on the wall above the plexiglass of a rink I played in as a kid. I don’t remember what rink or how old I was, but I must have been young. Peewee-age. My memory’s not that great—last year I called my mother on her birthday and then exactly two months later to wish her happy birthday again (it was a March/May thing)—but this sign has stayed in my skull. It read in big capital letters A KID ON ICE IS SELDOM IN HOT WATER. Back then I didn’t read “on ice” euphemistically; why I thought the sign was funny was just that the ice didn’t seem to be keeping some of my teammates from the hot water. Young, but already learning.

This sign is the basic premise and moral of The Town. Growing up in Charlestown, a rough suburb of Boston, there are only two ways out for a kid: robbing banks or becoming a professional athlete. I exaggerate, but so does the film.

Like Manchester By The Sea, hockey combines with accents and Afflecks to signify the East Coast on a basic level. But whereas in Manchester it was unclear whether hockey was stoking the male characters’ anger or providing them with a more appropriate outlet for that anger than bar fights and punching windows, The Town positions hockey as the hope of a dead-end community.

Hockey first enters the picture when Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), wearing a Bruins jacket, enters the Charlestown’s municipal hockey rink to be thick as thieves with his buddies post-robbery. The rink proves a particularly safe venue for the secret meeting because its ice has been removed. Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), MacRay’s hostage-then-girlfriend will later inform him that, in her work with the Boys and Girl’s Club, she has to play kickball with the kids on the concrete surface because the city won’t put money into the place.

We later learn that the iceless rink was serving as sly characterization, an objective correlative for MacRay’s fall from athletic grace. “Local Hockey Hero Drafted,” a projected clipping from the Charleston Patriot shows what’s supposed to be a young Doug MacRay in action. “Yeah, he was a big deal for a minute,” a meeting of cops trying to bring MacRay down allows one of them to give straight exposition without it seeming heavy-handed. “Got drafted, went to camp. But here’s the shocker: he started makin’ trouble, fightin’ with guys.” FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) completes the story: “MacRay came home. Got into the family business. Same song: got into Oxycon. Hockey ship sailed with the narcotics.”

At this point, yes, you should be able to predict the final scene. Of course MacRay will give the stolen money to Keesey so that Charleston’s ice rink can have ice again, so that kids will have a chance to get into a different type of hot water than he did.

 

Chasing Amy (1997, a filmed Kevin Smith screenplay)

See: Afflecks, hockey and

See: bickering, hockey violence intercut with

See: equipment, mismatched

See: organ music at the wrong time

See: stereotype, It’s-cute-when-girls-are-willfully-ignorant-of-sports

Cross-reference with: stereotype, lesbians-like-sports

 

Untamed Heart (1993, dir. Tony Bill)

All Caroline (Marisa Tomei) wants is for a cute boy to take her to a hockey game. After getting dumped en route to a Minnesota North Stars game, Caroline begins to despair that this dream date will ever take place. Then, she meets Adam (Christian Slater), the taciturn busboy at the restaurant where she waits tables. The thing is, Adam is kind of a weirdo—too busy listening to records and reading books and not talking and carving goddam duck decoys to take interest in something as human as hockey. By the end of the movie she finally coaxes him to a North Stars game, during which time it becomes painfully obvious that the event is some kind of litmus test by which Caroline hopes to ascertain whether or not this guy can act normal.

And he does! He cheers at mostly the right times, and he even catches a hockey puck! “I didn’t know if you’d like it,” Caroline still looks worried in the car afterwards. “I love hockey,” is Adam’s unconvincing reply. “You didn’t even know what a power play was,” Caroline fully inverts the stereotype of dudes having to explain sports to their clueless female companions. But lo, like a demigod forsaking his immortality to be with the mortal he loves, Adam has ventured too close to human excitement for his frail heart to handle. Hockey is his prophesied end, and he goes to it willingly, dying with “Good game” and a faint smile on his lips.

And it’s as if the North Stars’ star was hitched to that of their new fan. Untamed Heart was released in February of 1993—the very next month, it was announced that the beloved North Stars were relocating to Dallas, a loss from which the state of Minnesota may never fully heal.

 

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