5 September 2011

the agony of others: the US Open and its injuries

Expecting a match report and some press feedback on Rafael Nadal's victory last night in the US Open 3rd Round against David Nalbandian, I went to the tennis tournament's website. across the homepage was a video, whose screengrab just looked like a normal press conference. I clicked on it and found this (I feel sort of weird linking to this, as I don't know how I feel about this video being posted):

The most popular video on the US Open site, unavoidable on the scroll-through video gallery which keeps landing you back on it, was nearly 2 minutes of Rafael Nadal wincing and cramping, as the camera, rock-steady, recorded imperviously on. I made it through about a minute before realising 1) they aren't going to cut to anything else, let alone report on the match and 2) this is horrible.

What good is it to me, or anyone, to gawp at a tennis player suffering cramp at a bad time? Some of the comments below were ridiculous - one woman, Elizabeth David if I remember rightly, said that 'it was agonizing - how dare they put up such a video - look at what 'we' put them through'... (the response from another user, predictably deadpan, was along the lines of 'not agonizing enough for you to stop watching...')

Let's pull this into perspective. There are several things going on here. Yes, Elizabeth David, there is something cruel or weird about the posting of this video. But cramp isn't that cruel or weird thing. The odd thing going on with the video is the seeming lack of empathy or sympathy for a player in an awkwardly-timed spot of bother. Even weirder, or greedier, is the way that this footage was immediately advertised - and of course, picked up - by media outlets across the globe, hitting the homepages of ElPais, the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald (that at least has a sense of, not a sensationalist, humour) and so on within minutes - as a collapse/ shock/ OUTRAGE!!!

stop! press! RAFAEL SLUMPS TO THE GROUND....with cramp.

Cramp is painful, yes, but it passes. Press conferences too are painful, but they pass, with the same old 'he played well, tough first set, but I played some good points' soundbites. The only thing which makes the press conference special is that we happen to have seen what is an otherwise banal moment in a sports person's life, when thet have to lie back, breathe deep and wait for the spasms to subside.

Nadal's irritation with the persistent camera-snapping silence is understandable. But that's the only thing that makes the video interesting: imagining the silent, poised journos, gawping at an 'agony' that is merely inconvenient. And then this moment becomes the story of the entire game - it eclipses the sport completely. Nadal played a good game, and yet once again, the media will be fawning over this bruised solider, who is pushed 'too hard' by the tennis calendar.

Yes, the tennis calendar is punishing, but I have a feeling that no one is more punishing on himself than Rafael Nadal. The difference between he and Nalbandian was exactly one of mentality, a mindset solidified years ago and now paying off: Nalbandian, as everyone keeps saying, was one of the great hopes of a few years ago. He never really made it, and looking at the match up between he and Nadal yesterday, you could see why. It was written in their bodies, their body language, their movements and muscles. Both have talent, but what differentiates them is the amount of hard work and pain Nadal has put himself through to get to 10 grand slams.

But back to that video a second. It has since been removed from the US Open site, all full 2 minutes of boredom. A few rogue youtube versions remain here.When you relay its contents, it sounds funny (and then first comment for this video is: 'looks like he's getting a blowjob lol'): a world class athlete slowly disappearing from view under a table at a press conference. Fine, that is kind of funny - when you tell it to someone else.

But watch it, without thinking that. What is it that makes the event, the banal insight into an athlete's cramp, creepy? What does that unswerving, anonymous camera remind me of? Michael Haneke's Caché. A film that supremely deals with the mind games caused by the camera, the unglinting focus on the everyday; and how the viewer, intent on finding meaning, will turn the everyday, the uninhibited, into the ominous, the treacherous. (Incidentally, the trailer is a perfect example of the opposite - Hollywood's all powerful need to subsume and convert the tone and focus of any film into a deceptive 'thrill ride'; to reimagine the spasms of the death drive only in relation to death.)

What is baffling about this video and its eeriness is its complete absence of necessity, or even of meaning. (And see how desperately I am now flailing to give it meaning, to fit it into something sensical!)

I understand why it was recorded - but I don't understand why the US Open let it be posted, unedited, to the world. The two minutes are not dissimilar to those two hours of footage of Binoche and Auteil's house in Caché: unending, with no narrative, no change, no seeming purpose outside themselves. So why share it?

It is necessary, for other events, for a camera to unswervingly capture the agonies of an individual, or a nation. Pain and suffering DOES belong on the news: so too does reporting it objectively.

The word 'objective' is worth pausing over: post-modernism has torpedoed any sense of faith in 'objectivity'. Objectivity instead is always a relative term. The camera is not a passive nor innocent thing; it shapes and changes behaviour; and for the viewer it frames events into stories. Yet the objectivity - or otherwise - of the camera, is incredibly fluid; whilst in art we know it is oppressively present, it can be used with more urgency, and less calculation.

In a field such as journalism, especially within war and conflict reporting, the mere presence of a camera is important. Finding the right place, following the right people, until the filming can be done. But when recording takes place, there is little time, or consideration, for how 'objective' the framing. The focus is on what is in front of the camera, the rest, once the camera rolls, is simply trying to keep pace. Because the snatched footage from an al-Jazeera camera, or a mobile phone, are immediately in dialogue with a much bigger picture, a much bigger version of events.

Having a view into the torture and atrocities committed by non-elected and elected governments is imperative - and dangerous. In politics, video is perhaps the closest we can get to counterbalancing the mind-numbing (and often desensitising) raft of words - spoken or written - which use the recurrent themes: civilian casualties, air strike, unrest, humanitarian crisis. So in the context of ongoing unrest, the necessity of seeing a Syrian detainee being slapped and humiliated by a solider loyal to President Bashar al-Assad (in the link above), speaks for itself. It is not pain for pain's sake: it is one human face of the troubles which are recevied outside of the Middle East in largely dry and stylised (sterilised?) forms: reports, new legislations, meetings.

But in the context of the US Open Press Conference (and the endless press circuit), an athlete's cramp does not speak for itself; and footage of this is useless, empty, unless we can understand where it fits. Those 2 minutes become a strangely dull pornography, where the viewer persists in the hope of a weird titillation or enough disgust to turn off: haha he looks like he's getting a blowjob...Oh my god isn't this terrible and awful!!!...yeah but isn't it still kind of hot...

For the most part, the video does little but raise an odd, passive aggressive disinterest, much like the disinterest of that 'unobtrusive' camera, turning us into the gawping rest of the press conference. Which is what makes this little glimpse of a player in pain so weird. It has no story; no outcome. The big games of professional tennis, unlike most other sports, give the viewer unblinkingly direct access to the players in moments that merge agony and ecstasy; and those emotions are always part of a bigger narrative. We're driven to expect them: but to expect them in the right places, like finals, career-defining moments.

Like with Caché, the presence of the camera here is not the dangerous thing: the viewer is. So far beyond the argument for the objective gaze, we now give the camera an overwhelming subjectivity, projecting our own meanings or feelings, filling in the gaps the way you might in a film, or an art installation.
It has to be telling us...something...it must be watching for a reason....
Thanks to the increasingly theatrical coverage of sport in the UK, even the journalistic camera is expected to give us a gazumping great tragedy, or triumph - rather than simpy document a passing moment. (And that's what Haneke's film plays with so brilliantly...in fact, maybe the overblown trailer was deliberate - to further highlight the expectation for titillation that the viewer presents.)

Of course, the journalists present to question Nadal were doing their job; what is more, no doubt the footage stops when it does because afterwards other figures rush in and the moment is lost. But those lonely 2 minutes are a curious pause for reflection: on the state of empathy in a culture which so obsessively yearns for any taste of the extraordinary and exalted few that it becomes distracted, and defined, by the mediocre.

But let the extraordinary be the focus once again. In tennis terms at least, Nadal (as the Guardian's Kevin Mitchell wrote) 'is back'.

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