The modern athlete faces enormous internal struggles. Cameras recording their every move, they step on the court or field aware that they are being observed, each gesture part of an accumulating narrative—the smallest tic is broadcast to the entire world. Do they have the killer instinct? We think we can determine the answer not just by how they play but how they respond in the moment, the burst of reality that explodes out of learned technique. Fear runs through every athlete, certainly, but this is something that can’t be measured. We only care about how they show it. Through the lens of a camera, we need to see the intensity it takes to be the best. To win is not only to beat your opponent, but to perform the act of winning in front of an audience, recorded for posterity.
Some athletes have mastered this performance more than others, and none in such nerve-wracking fashion as tennis great John McEnroe in his prime. When you were watching him on a court, what you were seeing was more than a game. Arms swinging, face in a perpetual scowl, he stomped his feet, swiped his racket at invisible targets, and yelled at referees, media, and fans alike. There was a “combined madness and lucidity” to his total performance, as the film critic Serge Daney wrote in 1987. The potency of his freakouts was an extension of his masterful skill.
Having its North American premiere as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real series today (with a national theatrical release set for August), Julien Faraut’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection observes the tennis star (and art collector) through footage shot mostly at the 1984 French Open, originally intended for an instructional film. Focused solely on McEnroe — his opponents barely register — during his matches at the tournament, it is both a meditation on the psycho-dramatics of sports, its links to cinema and their shared relationship to time, and a pure celebration of the body in motion.
And McEnroe’s body is something to behold. It bends, juts out, slides, and sags. When he’s upset over a missed call, he rapidly releases the tension in his shoulders and lets his arms hang like a child. The camera captures his ferocious serve in slow motion and we see his body move at uneven angles, both controlled and untamed. You can’t help but watch him, even when he is on the sidelines, sulking. His condemnation of the audience is also an acknowledgement of his awareness that an audience exists. By diverting their gaze, he is also inviting them to look. The perfection he strives for comes from a mix of embracing and resisting his role as a performer.
There have been a number of films in recent years that look at the athletic subject in a similar way. Asif Kapadia’s 2010 documentary Senna, about the deceased Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, and Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, are, more than anything, about how we watch sports, and how watching has changed the way they are played. Both of these athletes are very different from McEnroe: Senna demanded to be watched through his daredevil antics on the racetrack, countered through the presentation of a spiritual life outside; Zidane, on the soccer field, was the embodiment of unwavering hard work and attentiveness. Audiences thrilled to the way Senna pushed toward the finish line with greater and greater speed; they marveled at the repetitious technical precision of Zidane. In the former, our gaze was turned against us as it became clear, in hindsight, that what we were watching was one long death scene played out across millions of television screens. For Zidane, the global media identity we constructed through watching was of an enigmatic man-machine, upended instantly by the famous headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final that would alter his image forever.
What all the best athletes share is some balancing act of chaos and control. Zidane absorbed the maelstrom through precision, while Senna projected invincible grace. McEnroe made the world hate him so he could win them back. “All this acting and absurd theater of self-destruction is a technique,” Daney wrote of McEnroe. “It’s a plot to transform this hostility, which he feels is bearing down on him, into wonderful tennis.” But how much is the technique intentional? What we’re watching in the film was McEnroe’s best season, his 82–3 match record still unparalleled, but also the beginning of his decline. His win at the US Open that year would be his last at a major. Sticking around for a few more seasons, he played in fits and starts. Drama on and off the court played out in the media. The performance became schtick — too forced, too rehearsed. The madness began to overpower the lucidity.