Sunday, 5 August 2012

George Best Bites His Nails

Last Monday night I went along to an open air cinema in Brunswick Street in Glasgow to watch a film I've wanted to see for years - Football Like Never Before, a 1971 German film about George Best in which the film-maker Hellmuth Costard used eight 16mm cameras to film Best during a game against Coventry City in 1970 - the same trick Glasgow artist Douglas Gordon would do with Zinedine Zidane more than 30 years later.

It's an interesting trick but one that does demand some endurance. Costard's film offered some aesthetic pleasures - the slab red of Best's top and socks popping on the screen against the green of the pitch, the raven blackness of his long hair and the way it matched his boots which, as the man behind me said, looked like winklepickers - but by the end of the game I wasn't really surprised that there was only myself and the organisers left (along with maybe a couple of people who had retreated to the outdoor seats at the Brunswick bar).
The film was rather at the whim of circumstances and the game Costard chose to shoot turned out to be a rather dreary one, especially in the first half. But for those of us who never got to see Best play live it offers a unique opportunity.
There's a good summary of the film here for those who want more details, but my own impressions were fragmentary. I was taken by how little the warm-up amounted to - basically George attempting a flick-kick if the ball came near him  - by the lack of football tops in the crowd (the early seventies, another world) and by the game's puritanism (Bobby Charlton gets a handshake when he scores and that's it. Best gets an arm in the mouth and he gets up, makes sure he's not bleeding and gets on with it).
But when I got tired of looking at the crowd or trying to identify who was playing for Coventry (I noticed WIlly Carr and Ernie Hunt which immediately made me think of trying to recreate their famous goal after seeing it on Match of the Day) I was left watching George and what struck me was how lonely he looked.

I'm trying not to project here. I'm trying not to read his future into this. But it is striking for how much of the game he is in the frame alone. He ambles about, making cursory tackles here and there, passing the ball when it comes to him, starting a run, getting tackled, falling over then waiting for the ball to come near him again.
Part of this isolation is down to the fact that he is on the periphery of the game for long stetches of course. In the second half he scores and sets up the Charlton goal and now and again you get a sense of what he was capable of as he accelerates from a standing start in huge lung-bursting surges past the pale blue Coventry shirts. Then again, the only time he seems to talk to any of his team mates is just before the second half kick-off and when he's not involved in the game he is biting his nails.
It all ties in with a remarkable sequence at half time when the camera cuts away from the game and we find ourselves in the back corridors of Old Trafford. This is clearly a different day because Best is now heavily stubbled, whereas he's clean shaven during the game. He walks in front of the camera and then turns and for a few minutes he is looking at us (or so it seems) as we look at him. He says nothing. The cameraman says nothing. It's a sequence that feels revelatory. Here is Best the man before us, exposed. Does he look uncomfortable? Does he look wounded?
Sorry, I'm projecting again. But I suppose that's what the film leaves you with. A fleeting sense of the man behind the myth. Yes, he was talented and yes, he was good-looking (there's no question that at times the film has almost homoerotic overtones as the camera repeatedly focuses on Best's thighs, his backside, the nape of his neck), but he was also human. He made the wrong decisions in games. He chose the wrong path. He got knocked down. But he got up again.
 It's the getting up again that makes you a sportsman, I guess.

No comments:

Post a Comment