Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Agony and Ecstasy of High School Football: Review of Varsity Blues

I have always loved Varsity Blues, a surprisingly good and great guilty pleasure sports movie. To celebrate football season, I want return to the essence of football, Texas high school football. I discussed this in my essay of the great Friday Night Lights also set the land of Texas football. Varsity Blues presents the homunculus that contains all of football’s glory and pathology but illustrated in the lurid emotional and physical theater of high school melodrama. This is NOT Friday Night Lights, but on its own terms, Varsity Blues mixes comedy and drama while xrays the appeal and perils of football fetishism.

The movie is set in the barren forgotten town of New Canaan Texas, the almost promised land. Like Friday Night lights, it delves into a culture where football anchors community, identity and intergenerational authority. It emerges from the land where Allen High School outside of Dallas just finished a 60 million dollar 18,000 person high school stadium that is only the third largest high school stadium in Texas.

The movie centers on the last six games of the quest of legendary coach Bud Kilmer, a slick and mean Jon Voight, to win “my” 23rd district championship and “my” third Texas state championship. With the unwavering support of the adult fathers of his players, all ex-players, he cajoles, screams and abuses his players who respond with worshipful resentment. Like Joe Paterno his bronze statue looms over New Canaan stadium, remember in the Bible Canaanites worshipped false gods. The team is built around all Texas quarterback Lance Harbor (a golden Paul Walker) with a scholarship to Florida State. Of course he dates the hot cheerleader (a young whip cream covered Ali Larter—you have to see the movie to understand). Lance plays with four buddies who have been with him since peewee ball.

We know Lance’s status because his father, an old wide receiver for Kilmer, has built a huge billboard in his front yard celebrating his son. The team, parents and town rabidly follow each play and truck out in vans across the endless dead prairie for game after game. At the center of this spider’s web of loyalty and power, Kilmer is building his own legacy and the town cooperates. Lance has accumulated knee injuries and cannot play without pain injections before each game, injections witnessed by his best friend and perpetual backup quarterback John Moxon.

In a critical game Billy Bob, overweight, slow but big-hearted lineman, suffers an obvious concussion but is sent back out on the field by Coach Kilmer who screams at the player for malingering. We first meet Billy Bob careening down the road in a large truck drinking maple syrup direct from the bottle with his pet pig. Staggering on the field, he misses his block and a blind side hit tears the Lance’s knee and ends the his season and scholarship. 

Jonathon Moxon who has happily sat on the sidelines for four years reading J.D. Salinger while pretending to master the playbook, is thrust into the game. To everyone’s surprise, including his parents, he throws a touchdown pass and saves the game. Suddenly he becomes the new idol of New Canaanites. 

The movie plays out in a battle of wills between Moxon and Kilmer. Moxon has always seen through Kilmer’s abuse and egoism. The movie and season reaches its highlight at half time of the district championship. The black running back, Wendell Brown, pulls up injured and the coach tries to convince him to inject a pain killer and play even though the pain. Charley Tweeter, the endlessly profane and horny the wide out, has heard a “pop” and worries about Brown. The compliant trainer has warned the coach it is a serious injury. Moxon, Lance and Tweeter confront the coach and warn Brown not to take the injection. Moxon states that if Brown takes shot injection he refuses to play. The coach dismisses him and turns to Tweeter to play QB, but Tweeter refuses. Lance warns Brown not to do it and Kilmer turns on his all state quarterback calling him a “gimp” and physically assaults Moxon in front of the team. The team refuses to follow Kilmer onto the field. Stunned by their own audacity and paralyzed without the coach, the team rallies behind Moxon and Lance Harbor. The team wins the championship on a trick play involving Billy Bob catching a pass.

The movie depends heavily on a didactic voice over commentary of Jonathon Moxon (James Vanderbeek,) the permanent backup quarterback. Moxon represents what my nephew calls the classic “guy who plays football.” Mox has the grades to escape New Canaan and dreams of being accepted to Brown. He is putting in time supporting his friends and satisfying his football obsessed dad who was a mediocre but reverential player under Kilmer. To sum up his attitude, “fuck Kilmer.” Yet his sudden fame as well protecting his friends like trying to get Wendell some touchdowns for recruiting purposes put him in constant conflict with Kilmer who even threatens to sabotage Moxon’s scholarship to Brown.

The power of football culture and the towering coach reaches deep into the town through the fathers of the sons who now play. The sport reinforces the patriarchy of the town and the fathers push, cajole and force their sons to play for the man who shaped them, Coach Kilmer. He’s the kind of coach who says and believes, “Never show weakness, the only pain that matters is the pain you inflict.”

The fathers live through their son’s success on the field while the supine wives run the household and go along with the football fantasy, except for Wendell Brown whose mom must do his recruiting because Kilmer will not help his sole black player. Lance’s father throws his son’s success into the faces of all his old friends especially Mox’s father. When Lance writhes in injury after blowing his knew, his dad mutters, “Lord, how can you do this to me.” At the hospital Lance’s father does not ask hear about the depth of Lance’s injury or how Lance has been able to play without any tissue for the last year, all he wants to know is how soon before Lance can “play” and get his scholarship. When Moxon receives his acceptance letter to Brown, his father ignores it and demands to talk about the next football game. This ends with Moxon telling his dad, “I don’t want your life.”

When Coach Kilmer grabs helmets to scream at players and endlessly abuses them to achieve “my” championships,” the fathers lounge chairs watching the practice. “It’s good for them,” they mutter as they celebrate rosy memories of their own humiliation. This summer at least three high school players died in practice while similar parents watched and celebrated the cruelty that coaches and dads think shape players and men. The fathers celebrate their own baptism under Kilmer’s abuse by claiming he is “making” their sons “men.”

I think a couple lessons come through the entertainment that remain true at all levels of football.

Football Glory is Fleeting and Hollow—Bruce Springsteen’s song Glory Days reminisces about the fate of us who see all life as shadow play compared to our Technicolor athletic memories. The reality is worse. Lance sees everyone abandon him including his scholarship when he injures himself. Even his girl friend Ali Larter tries to seduce John Moxon as her way out of New Canaan. Lance’s coach simultaneously uses his injury to insult and motivate his team but turns viciously on Lance and calls him a “gimp.” Lance sits in agony in his room listening to everyone forget him when Jon Moxon wins a game and displaces him as the new “hero.”

Football is not reality. It exists for a moment, a brief transient moment, like all sports. Kilmer and the patriarchy heighten that moment to the highest point of life to motivate young men desperate to get their father’s and Kilmer’s approval. Kilmer relies upon the father’s collaboration to abuse and exploit their children. Mox sees through it all and knows that if Kilmer continues to win, his young and quite weird younger brother will be forced to play for the tyrant.

At the end when Moxon rallies the team, he rejects the glory for a life myth that sustains football’s dominant narrative. He stumbles upon what the best athletes know—focus upon the moment, only the moment and not the glory or the future. He pleads with his teammates don’t make memories, don’t play for the future or creating a past. Summoning the great Greek myths of western sport he yells,

“Before this game started, Kilmer said "48 minutes for the next 48 years of your life". I say, "Fuck that". All right? Fuck that. Let's go out there, and we play the next 24 minutes for the next 24 minutes, and we leave it all out on the field. We have the rest of our lives to be mediocre, but we have the opportunity to play like gods for the next half of football.”

Guys Do Stupid Stuff—kind of goes with the game, but we often forget that our college heroes are 19-year-old guys. Mox, who should know better, gathers his four friends Tweeter, Billy Bob and the straight-laced Wendell and rescues Lance Harbor from self-imposed exile, to spend the night at a strip club. Leaving aside the fantastical moment when they find their PE teacher at the strip club—I never said this was reality! —The guys have a great and wonderful time and stumble out dazed and hung over. Kind of like when this year perennial high school power Catholic high school De Matha was playing a game in North Carolina and the five players snuck prostitutes into the hotel past 18 parents and coaches. Of course the team loses the next game as the four play still hung over and encounter Kilmer’s wrath because the “disrespect of a few” cost him “my” undefeated season.

We understand again how closely aligned power, violence, sex and friendship merge in football culture. It also becomes clear that friendship matters because Mox is the only guy to visit Lance Harbor. Lance has learned how quickly not only glory but also all the fake friends disappear. It’s a life lesson anyone with position or fame learns; football just etches it more clearly. We learn friendship lasts past fame and glory.

The Abuses are Deep Rooted—this should be no surprise. High school really is the homunculus of the college and professional world, all the joys and pathologies exist in smaller form. They will just scale up as the level of visibility and stakes rise. Special treatment from police who are intimidated by the coach to ignore drunkenness and theft—check; special gifts of illegal beer at no cost to the players—check; driving injured players to play through peer pressure and appeals to their manhood—check; players living out the fantasies of their fathers—check.  Getting captured in the hype even when you see through it—check.

The seduction of football fame hits everyone. The usually levelheaded Mox cannot believe his luck and the fun and rush of being treated like a celebrity with free beer, seductive cheerleaders and swarms of girls as well as media spotlight. After one game, a newscaster traps him and asks him if he plans to play QB in the Ivy League. A flustered Mox shucks and  “thanks God” and talks of himself in the third person, “Jonathon Moxon is only one man.” Lance listens in agony in his lonely room. Lance’s sister and Mox’s levelheaded girlfriend (a type cast Amy Smart) all but leaves him after telling Mox how he just behaved.

And yet we can almost understand why star athletes refer to themselves in the third person. It may be the only way they can separate their own humanity from the bigger than life persona that the media and their fans thrust upon them.

Despite its cutting critique of the tyranny of coaches and collaboration of fathers and towns in exploiting their sons, the core of the movie delivers a different message of football and guys. It begins with guttering footage of four young kids playing peewee ball.
Late a night a despairing Billy Bob is blowing up all his trophies, he tears he cries,, “we were just kids,” but coaches and fathers screamed and pushed and demanded of them even then.  Nothing they did could satisfy the lust of parents and coaches for using them as pawns in their need for status.

But the four kids held together. They held each other up. Different as planets, they shared the same orbit and protected themselves from their parents and coaches. We move from that shadowing memory to Billy Bob’s careening truck to the end of the game.

They have stood up for each other and protected Wendell, helped Billy Bob through his concussion, stayed with Lance when everyone else abandoned him. At the end, the moment of victory was “ours.” It belonged not to bronzed coaches, not to incomplete dads, but to them. None of them would play football ever again, but that did not matter.

In the end the value arises not from the game, not from love of the game, not from the community’s misuse of the sport, but the small and real love of the guys for each other—four kids, four friends playing an adult game with each other.

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