Saturday, December 28, 2013

Nasty, Brutish and Short: Life Among the Thugs

There is much to be learned about a culture from those persons whom it places upon pedestals, whom it admires and emulates, whom it calls heroes.  —Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Yardley, on "The Magnitude of Sport"

I am old enough to remember a time when the only thing that landed on a playing field (besides ball or players) was a penalty flag, years of high-school games in which fans tossed only cheers at each other; and no parent would dream of slugging another parent in the heat of a Little League game. Even college soccer and football were seen as opportunities to upstage the other side's team, their cheerleaders, their band. No explosives or firearms were involved. 

The same ethics of sportsmanship infused politics—if you weren't a union activist or assassin, the gloves were definitely on. Throughout this last nasty political season, something I had read years ago has been nagging at me: I was hearing echoes of Bill Buford's discovery of the intensely partisan soccer supporter. 

Among the Thugs is Buford's description of his experience as a soccer hooligan. In England to attend Cambridge University, he was visiting in Wales, waiting on a train platform with three or four others when an unannounced train came through. It was a football special, a train that had been "taken over" by Liverpool supporters. 

...there were hundreds of them—I had never seen a train with so many people inside—and they were singing in unison: "Liverpool, la-la-la, Liverpool, La-la-la." The words look silly now, but they did not sound silly. A minute before there had been virtual silence... And then this song, pounded out with increasing ferocity, echoing off the walls of the station. A guard had been injured, and as the train stopped he was rushed off, holding his face. Someone inside was trying to smash a window with a table leg, but the window wouldn't break... the police were frightened. For that matter, I was frightened, as was everyone else on the platform... this violent chant was a way of telling us that they, the supporters, were in the position to do anything they wanted.

Buford actually joined the Manchester United hooligans, melting into the crowd, yielding reason and compunction to the rule of the mob. He traveled, ate, slept, stole, screamed, fought, sang when they did. The strongest message of Buford's experiences as a thug is the sinister allure of membership in the mob; how easy it is to give in, and how hard to return to civilization once you do. 

We are on a particularly slippery slope when we surrender our civil instincts in this way. "My country, right or wrong" slides into "my party, right or wrong," my tribe, my family... The only way to win this game, as we were succinctly informed in WarGames, is not to play

Elijah Wood Among the Thugs

Green Street Hooligans is an amazing story, well told in this DVD movie.

This intense story takes Elijah Wood's American, Harvard-expelled, father-deprived character Mark Buckner from the quiet halls of Ivy-League academe to the violent world of the British football thug. Buckner is reeling from his unjust expulsion from Harvard - two weeks before he would have received a diploma. He has no one in the States to reach out to for help with the problem, so he flies to London for the only family he can reach, his sister.

Once there, Buckner is drawn into his brother-in-law Pete's seethingly violent focus on "making the reputation" of the "firm" he commands, the Green Street Elite, or GSE. Ostensibly the GSE are fans, followers of the West Ham United football team. (NEVER call it "soccer", Buckner quickly learns.) In fact, they are mainly followers of Pete, fans of each other and devoted only to the need for a violent reputation. This reputation-building process opens the story, with a bloody conflict at a railway station between the GSE and "fans" of a rival football team.

Right away, this film echoed for me the similar experiences of American journalist Bill Buford, in Among the Thugs, an eye-opener of a novel about Buford's exploration of the Manchester United firm. (Put a full dark beard on Wood, and he'd even look a bit like the author photo of Buford in my paperback edition!) Just as Buford learned with the firm he researched, the thugs Buckner meets (and fights with) on match day and in the pub have "normal" lives in everyday society - away from the GSE, Pete is a history teacher and coaches football for a middle school.

There is plenty of blood and flying fists, although the swift tidying-up of bruises and wounds downplays the consequences of it. I did find the "progress" of Wood's character (from a timid, overhead-punch-throwing, "girly" fighter to a true brawler, willing to stand his ground) delightful, despite the bloody noses and split lips. The final scene, when Buckner picks his ground to stand, is perfect in every detail - at last we see, not only the scars, but the benefits he derived from his time among the thugs.

The genuine character development and enticing story make this a good film - and the great cast, which includes Charlie Hunnam (seen on US TV recently in Sons of Anarchy) as Pete, Claire Forlani (seen recently in NCIS: Los Angeles and CSI: NY) as Mark's sister Shannon, and Marc Warren (recently of The Good Wife and MadDogs) as her husband Steve, adds to the appeal. 

Not for the kiddies (due to violent action and raw language), but for adults I recommend it highly - you won't be disappointed!