Sports and Cinema Going Hand-In-Hand
Seeing as this is a Toronto based publication, I’m going to take us somewhere a bit different. May 12th, 2019 ended up being one of the greatest moments in Toronto sports history. For those of you that don’t watch basketball, I will try and be as concise as possible, but just understand that four seconds had almost two decades of material behind it. The Toronto Raptors reached the second round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers back in 2001. At the last second, then-Raptor Vince Carter took a shot, and it ricocheted off of the rim into nowhereland. We had lost, and we couldn’t quite shake off this stigma: that Toronto just couldn’t cut it. For years, this kind of notion surrounded us, even though we have made it further in the playoffs.
Fast forward to 2019. A new team leader is found in the player Kawhi Leonard: a possible one-year rental, but a definitive Toronto sports legend that made it count within one season. Toronto wants him to stay. We have to make it far. We need to make sure he wants to stay. We also want to utilize the biggest superstar we’ve ever had. Guess what? We’re facing the Philadelphia 76ers once again. It’s game seven in the second round once again. We’re at the final four seconds of play, and the game is tied 90-90. And then, what is known as “the shot” happened.
A fadeaway jumper. A high arc shot. A peculiar, soft spin on the ball. A hit on the outside rim. Three subsequent bounces on the insides of the rim. It finally goes in. Like a striking photograph, this was a shot that affected everyone who saw it. 76ers fans had the wind knocked out of them. Raptors fans had the weight of the world lifted off of their shoulders.
The reason why I am bringing up sports here is not just because I co-host a Raptors centred podcast called That’s a Rap with some great friends (shameless self plugging is fine; this is my website). It’s because this shot has been compared to the art of filmmaking. There have been many comments, like (and I’m paraphrasing), “this was the end of a movie”, “this would be called a dramatic finale in a sports film”, and “what a climax”. In this brief article, I ask this: is it insane to compare televised sports to cinema?
In fact, you can thank cinema for the ways we watch sports.
This won’t go into all of the cruxes of photographical and cinematic history, because this would be volumes long. We can take some bite sized tidbits. Film can be linked to a photography experiment by extraordinaire Eadweard Muybridge, who had horses trigger a series of cameras by activating them via their hooves. The experiment was meant to see if horses ever had all four hooves off the ground at the same time mid-run. This accidentally created implied movement, through the flipping of the images in the proper order. This was also a scientific hypothesis, and a lineage to the need to understand the active body of animals (and humans). In an essence, this was an example of sports and science connecting to moving visuals, and it was right at the very birth of said medium.
Skipping over so much history, we then cut to Russian experimental documentarian filmmaking, with the highly innovative Dziga Vertov. At this point, film went from a photographic novelty, to a lower-class act of nonsense shunned by the elite (in the form of extremely short recordings), then into narrative forms (influenced by theatre, then other types of art, before finally becoming its own being). Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera created a story out of the everyday lives of Soviets, as if to return cinema back to its fundamental roots. The earliest films featured workers leaving a factory, travelers boarding a train, and other types of everyday activities. Vertov shot these kinds of subjects, but with the new perspectives that cinema granted us (angles, proper editing, better equipment, musical accompaniment, and more). Man with a Movie Camera is considered one of the great documentaries, as a result.
This was important, because Vertov’s expertise on the cinematic language allowed for sports shots to be shown in a whole new light. Well, not quite. Let’s not forget that television didn’t exist yet. Hell, sound films didn’t even exist yet. Sports being featured in such a fashion did exist, but it was far from what you’d expect now. Vertov introduced sports as a forefront: slow motion movement to encapsulate the fleeting moments of a leap, plunge, or lunge. The catch is this is amidst many other shots of everything under the sun (at the time): families, traffic jams, factories, and animals. Sports was a cog in the machine, but not the forefront.
Enter Leni Riefenstahl, the lauded filmmaker behind another acclaimed documentary: Olympia parts I and II. Here, the 1936 German Olympic Games were shot. Riefenstahl was picked up by the Nazi movement to make propagandistic arts for the party. After her highly successful The Triumph of the WIll, she was asked to make the Olympic Games look as good as possible. The world had to come to Germany. Well, Riefenstahl went above and beyond to sell this two part supersized documentary. Dug trenches for camera operators to lay under triple jumpers. Slow motion movements implemented as much as possible. Underwater cameras. Everything had to work.
Despite the connection to a dark part of world history, Olympia has reigned surpreme as one of the crowning achievements in film history. It pushed for other Olympic games to be shot in similar fashions. That need led on to other things; some you may be more familiar with on a daily basis. Vertov and Riefenstahl slowed down the movements of athletes to showcase the human body at work, with the process of time affecting us at every microsecond. Now, the slowing down of sports is used as a necessity: to review muddled plays, celebrate moments, or understand thought processes. It’s almost insane to think of sports without this, yet watching a live game isn’t like this at all. If you exclude any use of a jumbotron, you will never see any moment slow down or reverse with your own eyes. Yet, this is how we understand sports now. We “need to see that shot again”.
Films had recorded sound by the time Olympia was released, so the notion of a radio commentator now being provided with visual content made a cinematic marriage that is inseparable now (outside of listening to sports broadcasts, of course). Eventually, television came out, and sports began to be shown that way. Slow motion and reverse technology was implemented in due time. Now, there are live scribbles and multi-perspective rotation shots that Riefenstahl sadly wasn’t around to see: she passed away at the age of 101 in 2003.
There was also the progression of cinema, and the rise of sports films. This includes the terrible The Babe Ruth Story: a hyperbolic slog of a film that includes Ruth’s home run curing a sick child’s cancer. However, what I believe was the purpose behind this terrible film was to capture the glory that sports can bring. Many other films (even the bad ones) have attempted this same goal, and have had more honest results. It’s a genre in and of itself. The sports genre. You watch them to relive that feeling of pure elation if your favourite team is no longer playing. No matter if the athletes win or lose, film is now able to make you relive that moment. Did it matter at the end of Rocky? No, because there have been many sequels since, and audiences keep wanting to relive the sensation this series brings. It was about Rocky Balboa getting there. The montage. The slow motion. The extreme close ups. The reverse shots. Everything that experimental, European documentarian filmmaking was creating for us.
There have been many typical sports films, but they’re for a specific audience. Many people love this genre because of its reliability. Cinephiles may prefer Raging Bull, where a good chunk of the film rests on the story in between the matches. When it comes to the actual sports, however, you can guarantee that films like Raging Bull (and likely just Raging Bull, to an extent) go above and beyond with the tools that Muybridge, Vertov, and Riefenstahl bestowed upon us. Martin Scorsese utilizes some newer techniques to bring the partnership between cinema and sport even closer: the dolly zoom (pulling away from a subject and zooming in, or vice versa), the absence of sound in some points (rather than the use of scores), and some lightning fast edits (thanks to Thelma Schoonmaker).
Warning: this clip may feature spoilers for Raging Bull.
Excluding to mention the many other feel-good sports films (you probably have a bunch of your own favourites), we get back to one last important documentary. Hoop Dreams saw the opportunity to bring the story of two budding basketball prospects to the masses. Their separate daily struggles, and veering off outcomes were a tremendous look at a few aspects: how the same opportunity can differ for athletes, and how much someone has to fight with outside of their sport of choice. What’s interesting is that this iconic sports film is, yet again, a documentary. Fast forward to even last year. Hale County This Morning, This Evening focuses heavily on the basketball community found in the titular town. Once again, all of this avoids bringing up the many fictional or biopic features that are based on sports, because those often depict the same ideas using the same innovations that the previously mentioned films utilize. Documentaries, on the other hand, extend past even the televised sports we are used to (which, once again, are an extension of cinema).
There is something about Hoop Dreams that recreates the thrill of watching a sport: it’s the comparison to how life runs its course with all of us. Ups and downs. Wins and losses. Isn’t that life? What can capture the essence of the continuous anticipations, and the unpredictable outcomes of sports? Life itself. Cinema was able to place both life and sports in a new understanding, but both life and sports changed film in the exact same way. The need to relive sports moments made film come to the rescue. The importance of understanding sports through a visual medium made film step up. Every sporting event is its own narrative: a backstory, a series of acts, a climax, and a resolution. It’s like a genre: same shtick, different story. A lot of history went into the framing of the resonating buzzer beater by Kawhi Leonard, but it’s a lot more than just the feuds between the Raptors and the 76ers. It’s all of cinema. It’s all of visual sports. Both extremely distant worlds have relied on each other a lot more than you may think.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.