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By Chris Oddo | Friday August 31, 2018


"McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection" is not your typical tennis film and this is why it may be one of the best.

Photo Source: Oscilloscope

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, a film by Julien Faraut, is dramatically different from other tennis films. Perhaps, at its essence, it isn’t even a tennis film at all. At times it is difficult to decipher. It doesn’t tell a story: Instead, it allows one to be told. Using a multitude of precious 16mm film footage—called rushes—Faraut has assembled a meandering McEnroe maelstrom that enlightens the viewer on the plight, flight and grounding of a tortured artist.

More: New McEnroe Documentary Explores American's Quest for Perfection in Paris

An introductory scene, early in the film, expressed the full power of what I was about to watch when it cut to clip of McEnroe queuing up his famous corkscrew serve. It’s a repetitive scene that hammers home the sheer beauty of McEnroe’s foundation—we get multiple clips from multiple angles, back-dropped by the brash, metallic fury of Sonic Youth.

I was hooked on this film at that very moment. In fact, I had never fully comprehended the beauty of McEnroe’s serve in such a way, or fully taken in all the nuance of his mechanics. In tennis, as a tennis journalist, we deal in facts, in day-to-day banalities—who reached the semi-finals? How many break points did he or she convert? How many titles has he or she won?—but immediately while watching that footage, Sonic Youth building to a crescendo as McEnroe soared above the bright red clay, I knew that this was a film about something else.

But what?

It’s a question I am still asking.

To get to the heart of the matter I got on the phone with the film’s director Julien Faraut, who lives in Paris. Through an interpreter, we spoke for over an hour and learned more about how the film came about. To understand the film we must understand the work of Gil de Kermadec, a former French tennis player who later became a filmmaker. For years, he would make films that studied the technique of top players—Borg, Vilas, Mandlikova, etc…—and use the footage to instruct on matters such as technique, essence, tactics.

Long story short: Faraut met de Kermadec (who was already retired at the time) at the French Institute for Sport and became aware of his vast library of film footage of the top players (again, called rushes). Faraut was enthused to see that the library on McEnroe stretched to over 20 hours of footage and he was eventually compelled to pursue this mysterious subject. In making the film he didn’t seek to honor his own creative muse, rather he honored the work of de Kermadec and let the rushes be his muse.

Perhaps that explains why the film is so irreverent. Why it meanders and neglects to inform the reader about the stages of McEnroe’s quest for perfection. Why it ignores time to make a point about time. How it uses expressions, innuendo, tension and conflict to tell a story that is bigger than McEnroe’s remarkable 1984 season, or even his failure to finally win the title that ended up eluding him.

Even to this day the loss at Roland Garros haunts McEnroe. And it is safe to say that the film will haunt the viewer, because this is a story of tension, truth and torture as much as it is about the supreme elegance of an artist in full flight.

The footage itself is arresting. It is raw. Without the strict demands of television and ample time to explore, Kermadec’s camera crew is free to wander. There are experimental profiles and haunting close-ups mixed and muddled with epic performance footage.

We began our interview discussing a quote of the great filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, which Faraut introduced early in the film and expounded upon throughout.

Q: Cinema lies, not sport. It’s true?

Julien Faraut: It’s very true. It was a very important quotation for me. I discovered this interview with Jean-Luc Godard which he made in 2001 for L’equipe magazine in France. Sometimes when you read Godard speaking about other subjects, he is not always very clear, things can be a little bit vague, but here, when he was speaking about sports it was almost 180 degrees opposite of what we have come to expect when we see an interview with Godard. He was very clear, he was almost clairvoyant in what he was speaking of, so I really decided that this was the quote that I wanted to begin my film with and also truly it was at the heart of what my film shows.

What you have to remember is that cinema is sometimes a situation where it attempts to reproduce everything. It attempts to reproduce falling in love, people dying, people fighting and it is done in a way to get the spectator to believe that it’s really happening. But the one thing that cinema has not been able to do so far, as far as I’m concerned—it has been unable to really reproduce those gestures that are kind of true excellence or of genius, whether it in sports or in the arts, in music… it doesn’t come across.

We don’t see this on the screen, so what I wanted to do in my film was to reproduce what is not reproducible and that was my focus and I think that what you often see in films and even almost paradoxically in documentaries is there is this idea that we are not really supposed to know that the camera is there, that you are supposed to be there and the camera becomes very self-effacing.

What I wanted to do is emphasize that cinematic aspect and the presence of the camera is really something that is very important in this film. The camera does have an influence but it’s also a presence and that is what I tried to accomplish in my film.

Q: Let’s talk about McEnroe as a physical artist. What is your impression of his athleticism, his artistic form and his power as a subject?

Julien Faraut: I think for me I really would not have made a film about any other tennis player other than McEnroe. He was somebody who was definitely a presence as I was growing up but I’m not a great tennis player myself I’m not a huge fan, an absolute fan—it’s not an obsession for me—but as I was growing up he was certainly an important sports figure. I knew of him, I knew about him, and what I found it is that when we look back at McEnroe and his time, it’s almost with a kind of nostalgia, because he really belongs to a tennis world that doesn’t really exist anymore, and I think that’s one of the reasons why so many people miss him and miss his presence in the tennis world.

But I was fascinated by him and one of the things that was most fascinating for me was his constant reading of the game, and what was happening. At each moment he would read what was happening and he would try to find the best way to respond, the best answer to each problem as it was presented to him.

He made a tremendous investment of himself and his intellect and his way of approaching all of these problems that were presented to him, and his responses were always almost unexpected. He never had the same answer for the same problem. This was one of the reasons why it was unexpected both for the people he played against but also for the spectators who were watching him.

There was quotation by Serge Daney (a French movie critic) that I think is relevant here. He was speaking about Borg and McEnroe. About Borg he said that Borg would hit the ball where the other player wasn’t. But McEnroe would hit the ball to the place where he would never be. So I think that contrast is very well expressed in that quotation. And for McEnroe I think he created this kind of permanent instability for himself. It was constant. He was constantly creating new ways to respond to shots.

Also his character, because his character, his whole attitude towards the game. He could sometimes be a very antipathetic personality but I think you can also look at him as a super hero who was also inflicted with super weaknesses. And I think that this really explains his character. He had this kind of constant dissatisfaction, always looking for another answer, this anger inside him, but also at the same time a kind of fragility. And that’s what made him so fascinating. He was a human being and not a machine—with many weaknesses.

Q: Weaving in audio footage of De Niro in your film, the audio from Raging Bull, and the scenes from the Mozart movie, what did you feel like you wanted to accomplish with those playful scenes?

Julien Faraut: I think in both cases what I really wanted to emphasize was a kind of porosity between sports, the game and Cinema. To answer first about De Niro and Raging Bull, one of the things that I found about Robert De Niro, as an actor he was always somebody who was extremely expressive, both in the way he used his body and also in the way he used his face. And each time he would react you could see it expressed very visually and with great theatricality. And for me, when I watched McEnroe play I saw that same thing, that same expressiveness in his body and in his face, his reactions, his emotions were written on his face, and he was considered to be very theatrical.

So when I saw this in McEnroe I immediately thought of Robert De Niro and the way he speaks and his gestures, and I think that McEnroe—if you see McEnroe today and even after his playing career was over—he really tried to kind of exploit that bad boy image. Sometimes you see him in those cameos in films or in advertisements and he plays on that image.

But at that time it was really something that in a way was kind of a distortion of who he was. Remember that in the 1980’s, for actors, it was purely the age of the actor’s studio and actors like De Niro were the most visible on stage and what characterized them was the fact that they were very natural, that they had this almost improvisational quality, they were very emotional, and I watched some film of tests that were done, like screen tests or audition type tests, in the actors studio, and when you see De Niro sometimes you watch him and you’re really not sure if he’s acting or is he just getting ready to act? Is this the test or is he just waiting to start? So I think that that’s really something that is a quality that I saw paralleled with McEnroe.

Also this difference between reality and acting it creates a kind of ambiguity when you see him and I think that McEnroe also created that kind of ambiguity while he was playing, so for me there really was a natural parallel between having the two and that was really why I chose that Raging Bull reference in the film.

For the Mozart reference, McEnroe himself quotes Tom Hulce, who said that when he was preparing to play Mozart he would watch films of McEnroe so that he would know how to play the character of Mozart. If you remember at that time McEnroe was more than just a tennis player. He was really in the whole media environment, he was somebody who was a real presence. He was in the newspapers, he was in the headlines, he was not just on the tennis court and of course somebody like Tom Hulce could not have failed to notice that I think that he saw this tempestuous character that McEnroe was he immediately saw the parallel with Mozart.

The clip that I use in the film was from the American trailer for Amadeus and one of the characters at one point says “Who is this Mozart?” And somebody says “Oh, he’s a brat.” And it’s another reference because that was how McEnroe was known. It was his nickname, he was known as the brat, so again there was a similar type of analogy.

But I think in both cases it is important to remember it’s this porousness that is between the reality and the cinema—that’s what I was looking to stress.

Q: I wanted to ask a bit about Gil de Kermadec. How your relationship with him was formed and also specifically about the copious footage that you procured from him. What was it that made Gil special, what made his work special and could you comment about how you felt about the particular quality—how pleased were you to get a hold of all this amazing footage?

Julien Faraut: I work at the national sports institute, I’ve been there for 15 years. I met Gil there, he was already retired. A friend of mine Nicolas Thibault had talked about making a film about Gil—he wanted to focus on him as a tennis player but also as a filmmaker. It was because of his work on that film that I discovered the footage. I had my first look at them. There were quite a lot of them and they were not very well labeled. And they were on very small reels. There was a large volume of them but they were very raw.

What Gil wanted to do was make portraits of the important players of the day. Beginning in 1976 he would make a film each year. He would do these shoots to both show something about who the player was, but also to pick like the best of each shot and to technically be able to watch them make shot so that you could be able to technically be able to make that shot so that you could actually see what they were doing and understand the game that way as well.

He did films on many of the major players. He did on Vilas and Borg on Mandlikova, and he would stop shooting when he had enough. And for those people there was often enough to make the film in the same year it was shot but with McEnroe—McEnroe was the last one of the players that he was going to make a film about.

With McEnroe the rushes span a period going back to 1979. I had rushes from ‘79, ‘81, ‘83, ‘84 and ‘85. And it was the most film that was shot of any of the players that he had his films on. In total there were about 20 hours of these rushes which is about 40 times longer than the footage we used for the film.

For me this was something that was very exceptional because prior to seeing these rushes I didn’t have the desire or an idea of making a film about tennis or about McEnroe in particular, and it was the exceptional quality of these rushes that really made me want to make the film.

I really discovered them when I was looking at them on the editing table. When I was watching them—I was watching them on 16mm film—it’s a different way of watching because we are used to watching matches on video, on television and 16mm medium is much different, it’s a much different photochemical medium and it creates a kind of ambiguity as you are watching. Am I watching a match? Or am I watching a demonstration. It’s never actually quite clear when you’re looking at the rushes. So for me that ambiguity was again, something that I mentioned before that I wanted to play with in the case of McEnroe and it really enabled me to look at this though a different prism of what kind of tennis McEnroe was playing and so because of that I really was working in service to the rushes. It was really the rushes that determined what kind of film it was. It wasn’t a pre-conceived idea that I had and I went and I chose the rushes specifically to illustrate what I wanted to do.

For me what I really wanted to do was to show how you have an interaction between a perfectionist tennis player and also a highly professional film team that were working to film him at the same time.

Q: A question about time or the lack thereof: You talk about time a lot in the film and yet the way that you tell the story, which I find quite fascinating and quite creative, is you don’t really give the viewer a sense of time. We don’t know which round McEnroe is playing, we don’t really go through from the first round to the final. You leave it very vague and more artistic and then finally, in the final, you do start to introduce a sense of time. I wonder what went into your decision to initially disregard time and then eventually to allow time to become a factor again?

Julien Faraut: The first hour of the film is really very digressive. It’s not something that focuses on one particular thing but really is almost a cinematic reflection of the tasks that I myself followed in discovering these rushes and very quickly realizing the level of frustration that was involved there. And I realized that I myself became frustrated because I felt that what was missing was the cinematographic aspect of tennis, and in most of the films that you see about tennis.

In that respect I mean that there is very little emphasis on the real inherent drama that is part of tennis. Tennis is a game where there is no fixed time. The amount of time is set by the players themselves as they are playing. What I really wanted to do was I really wanted to show this drama that is inherent in the actual game and what is present, but I also wanted to show a little bit of the frustration that also developed for McEnroe.

In this film the first hour is pretty much how I discovered the rushes, how Gil filmed, and it ends with the match and I think that by putting the final at the end one of the things that was possible was that the viewers were more informed.

They were actually more prepared at the end of the film where we see McEnroe stop and he is arguing with the soundman, we know what all of those references are because we’ve had that explanation in the earlier part of the film. And so at this point I was able to really focus on McEnroe himself with the viewers better able to understand the frustration he was feeling and why he was feeling it.

The footage that I had, there was no complete match, in terms of the beginning and end in any of the films that I had. Largely it’s because Gil de Kermadec was not really interested. He was more interested in the technical gestures of the players rather than filming a specific event. He would also have some technical cinematic decisions that he made as well.

He might have shot a particular shot from one direction at one point in time because there were no clouds in the sky and it was a better shot or the lighting was better, so he was also approaching it from a cinematic perspective as well. It turned out that the match that we had the most film for was the 1984 final which of course is also the most interesting one of all historically speaking and it is very evident, it has this kind of unexpected drama to it, even though most people already know the outcome, so what I did when I was trying to reconstruct it, because remember these films were not all indexed and identified in order, I watched the match on the internet so that I would pretty much know the chronology of it and have everything in the proper order.

I was able then at that point to move from the more theoretical emphasis in the film to really looking at a very emotional ending for the film. In the end the viewer is watching this match almost as if he is watching a western. You have the clay you have the duel in the sun, or the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral here, it’s that moment of drama where the two protagonists are facing each other and it was important for me to emphasize the dramatic nature at that point.

Q: The music that you chose for an early scene, there’s this repetitive scene with McEnroe serving, there’s a Sonic Youth track there. It’s a beautiful scene that offers the artistic elegance of his technique. And then in the end you use a different type of music to illustrate the tortured mind of McEnroe. How important would you say these musical artifacts are to the film? I found them to be very powerful throughout the film but particularly in those two instances.

Julien Faraut: For me the music is very important in the film and I think that the real love that I have for editing film—watching it and editing it—really comes from my love of music. In the first part of the film, the slow-motion serve repetition, the music that I was looking to find was something that had to represent McEnroe and at that time for me what McEnroe represented was really New York. New York City. And its nervousness and its tension but also its creativity and its innovation. All of these had to be reflected and when I thought of those things I thought of Sonic Youth which was a group that was really very important to me. I saw that same kind of nervousness, tension and creativity in their music and it’s actually what I was listening to when I was working on the film and I had it in my head—and it worked.

The rock music that comes in the latter part of the film—I originally thought of having another group which was very representative of New York at the time which was the Ramones, but I thought about it and I realized that it really wouldn’t work. It might have been too much of a caricature of the time, but also because it would make you smile, there’s kind of a joie de vivre in the Ramones that I didn’t think was appropriate for the emotion that I wanted to convey at that moment. What I was looking for was something else. There was a French group that I knew and that I had seen play a number of times and I tested some of what they had done and it really worked for me because what it had was that it was more tortured, it had a dark quality, a very somber quality and it really worked for that kind of nervous tension and drama that takes place at the end of the film.

The musicians were able to come into the studio and they were actually able to watch the film too… I think that they really captured it because at that point you see McEnroe and he was somebody who set off an electric charge and I think that with the electric guitar you get that same feeling that the music is an echo of the emotion that McEnroe himself was feeling, the distortions that he was experiencing, and the emotion and the energy.

Q: Did you talk at all with McEnroe about this film? Has he seen it? Do you know how he feels about it?

Julien Faraut: The relationship with McEnroe himself it’s a little complicated, because primarily we work through his agent. I never felt the need of interviewing McEnroe. I didn’t think that was a necessary element for me to make the film. But on the other hand I did want him to know out of politeness but also to have authorization from him to do this, so working through his agent, who was very good about filtering access to his client, so we were able to get authorization.

I was very curious to know whether or not McEnroe had seen it and his agent eventually sent us an email that was actually quite terse, which said simply three words: “He liked it.”

Now I don’t know whether he had seen the full film or whether he had only seen parts of it, but I hope that he will and I hope that partly because he knew Gil de Kermadec, so that’s important but also because the film is not just specifically about him but it’s really about tennis and it speaks about tennis as a whole and I would hope that he would be curious enough to want to see it.


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