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In a Great New Documentary, John McEnroe Is a Work of Art

Plus some other random thoughts about ‘In the Realm of Perfection’

John McEnroe has been famous for 40 years, which means that there’s a good chance that, for most of your life, he’s someone you’ve been accustomed to seeing — either when he was a tennis player, or when he’s been a commentator, or when he’s done cameos in Adam Sandler movies, or when he’s starred in commercials that satirized his infamous on-court temper tantrums.

With that in mind, it might seem weird to say that the new documentary John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (which hits theaters Wednesday) made me feel like I was watching him for the first time. And yet, this ruminative, unconventional essay film presents us with a McEnroe that’s both in his natural habitat and also something of an avatar — an idea to ponder as much as a person to study. By drawing from and repurposing footage shot of McEnroe back when he competed in the French Open during the early-to-mid 1980s, director Julien Faraut turns the bratty, brilliant tennis champion into a work of art.

First, some quick background: In the 1970s and early 1980s, a French filmmaker named Gil de Kermadec, who was the head of the French Tennis Federation, set about documenting many of tennis’ greatest players, shooting hours of footage of them on the court the way Jacques Cousteau used to chronicle marine life. One of his subjects was McEnroe, who won Wimbledon three times and the U.S. Open four times. (And that’s just the singles tournament: He won doubles at Wimbledon five times and four times at the U.S. Open.) De Kermadec shot McEnroe during several French Open tournaments in the 1980s, including McEnroe’s one and only finals appearance in 1984.

Faraut, who works with the French Sports Institute, was intrigued by de Kermadec’s McEnroe footage. But rather than crafting a straightforward biographical documentary — something with a bunch of talking-heads, a highlight reel of the player’s greatest triumphs and a clear narrative — Faraut spends the 95 minutes of In the Realm of Perfection simply looking at McEnroe and thinking about him. Even better, he gets us to look at and think about McEnroe, too.

McEnroe has been the subject of another recent movie, a fiction film called Borg vs McEnroe, which starred Shia LaBeouf and tried to explain what motivated the brash, driven young champion. In the Realm of Perfection isn’t interested in unlocking the “real” McEnroe. Much of the footage is of McEnroe alone on his side of the court — getting ready to start the point, bitching to the referee, yelling at someone in the stands or maybe wandering around lost in thought — and as a result, the documentary forces us to consider how much of tennis (like a lot of sports) is an internal battle between the athlete and himself. It doesn’t matter what led McEnroe to this moment — he’s here now, all on his own.

And what a physical specimen he is. In the Realm of Perfection features a lot of incredible slow-motion footage — in particular, a lengthy sequence of McEnroe’s serves, each of them eerily similar to the one that came before. In the process, Faraut manages to do the impossible, making McEnroe look graceful, even beautiful — hard to imagine for a tennis player known for his arrogance and aggression. It’s one of several themes that emerge in In the Realm of Perfection: how there was something oddly tender and vulnerable about McEnroe, despite his tantrums and acting-out.

You may watch In the Realm of Perfection and not buy all of Faraut’s highfalutin observations about McEnroe. But the movie doesn’t necessarily have to sell me on all its arguments — the point is it’s supposed to make me look past my own assumptions about McEnroe to ponder him in a new way. And by this metric, it wildly succeeds.

De Kermadec had cameras placed in different vantage points around Roland Garros — in the rafters, at courtside — and Faraut uses all those different angles to shake us out of our familiarity with how we normally watch tennis on television. I suddenly became aware of all the activity that goes on during a match that I usually tune out. Throughout In the Realm of Perfection, I often noticed the spectators in the stands, all of them looking at McEnroe. It’s a strange phenomenon: I was watching them watching him.

And so, at different times during the film, McEnroe can seem like a lab rat or a zoo animal or a superstar on a red carpet — or, in his case, the red clay of Roland Garros. McEnroe was 25 when he competed in the French Open in 1984, and it’s striking now to remember how boyish — how much of a kid — he was back then. The enfant terrible of tennis — this rebel who thumbed his nose at the decorum of his sport — is a brilliant player but also so impossibly young and unformed. In the Realm of Perfection demonstrates how he was both attraction and curiosity — the man in the spotlight but also trapped in a cage.

Faraut considers McEnroe from many different theoretical points of view — including thinking of him as a filmmaker, the guy calling the shots and dictating the action — but of the many guises that In the Realm of Perfection invents for the champion, the one that came to mind for me was that of a comet.

I came of age at the time when McEnroe terrorized tennis courts, and I loved his arrogance, probably because I was at an age when I wanted to believe that someone through sheer force of will could conquer. Watching McEnroe in this documentary, I remembered that sensation, but now it was supplemented with the same melancholy awe I get these days watching LeBron James or Mike Trout. It’s the acknowledgment that, one day, this athletic greatness will be diminished.

What’s so amazing about superstar talents is that they can’t last — age and injury always have the final word. In the Realm of Perfection gets its name from McEnroe’s attempt to go perfect during the 1984 tennis season. Spoiler Alert: He didn’t, but in retrospect, that’s almost better. Part of the appeal of sports is the possibility of perfection. We watch guys like McEnroe because we want to believe it can happen, even though we know better.

Here are a few other takeaways from John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection.

#1. Which ‘Amadeus’ character was based on McEnroe?

Although Faraut hasn’t conceived In the Realm of Perfection as a biopic, he does drop a few trivia tidbits about McEnroe. One of these is the story that Tom Hulce, who received an Oscar nomination for his role as Mozart in 1984’s Amadeus, modeled the performance partly on McEnroe, studying his antics to portray that tempestuous character. (Critics noticed: Variety wrote at the time, “As played by Tom Hulce, Mozart emerges as the John McEnroe of classical music, an immature brat with loads of talent, but with little human dimension.”)

But that’s not the only actor who used McEnroe as his muse. The tennis player’s biographer, Richard Evans, notes that Ian McKellen looked to McEnroe when he played the lead in Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus in 1984. Evans quotes a description of the Roman leader that sounds, well, practically McEnroe-esque: “The origin of all lay in his unsociable, supercilious and self-willed disposition, which in all cases is offensive to most people; and when combined with a passion for distinction passes into absolute savageness and mercilessness.”

Brats and bastards: These were the types of character performances McEnroe inspired in his prime.

#2. Can you play better when you’re angry?

In the Realm of Perfection explores the notion that McEnroe was a contradiction because, unlike most people, he actually played better when he was angry — that, essentially, he needed to feel like his back was against the wall to do his best. In other words, some of that feuding with umpires might have been a fuel for his excellence.

But is that really true? It would seem that if you lose your temper, you also lose your focus. Can fury really be a successful motivator?

Athletes sure think so. DeMar DeRozan, now of the San Antonio Spurs, was raised by a father who would give him lots of tough love, telling him he was soft in order to motivate him to play better. “The madder he got, the better he played,” DeRozan’s mother said earlier this year. And the Wichita State men’s basketball team, the Shockers, a few years ago adopted the motto “Play Angry,” a philosophy that, as former player Ron Baker explained, “isn’t about playing dirty, or playing mean, or playing out of control. Play Angry is: You’re not going to beat us to a loose ball.

But Garret Kramer, an author and sports guru who “has provided mental conditioning, performance consulting, workshops and crisis management to hundreds of athletes, coaches and business leaders,” thinks that anger doesn’t make players better — it just makes them angry. “When we are annoyed, frustrated or livid, our thoughts race, and our awareness plummets,” Kramer writes. “Thus, it is virtually impossible to perform successfully.” What separates you and me from elite athletes, however, is that they know how to tune that anger out. “The point is that the best athletes understand that anger is self-created,” he explains. “And because angry thoughts are binding thoughts, these athletes refuse to buy in to them.”

McEnroe himself has come to disparage the fits he used to throw. Last year, he gave an interview where he talked about how modern tennis players have advantages that he didn’t, including more information on how to eat better and train more efficiently. “And then the other obvious [disadvantage], the amount of energy I wasted sort of complaining on line calls or whatever it is,” he added. “They have this challenge system, so that’s sort of taken [arguing] out of the equation, so I think I would have been a 20 percent better player but probably quite a bit, even more than maybe 40 percent more boring, because you wouldn’t have had that whole thing.”

It’s a tantalizing question to ponder: Could McEnroe have won more Grand Slams if he had calmed down? And would that, ultimately, have diminished his legacy in some ways because he wouldn’t have cultivated the persona of a brilliant brat?

#3. So, what’s an ‘essay film’ anyway?

Earlier, I described In the Realm of Perfection as an essay film, which might make this movie sound like a pompous, tedious navel-gaze. It’s actually much more fun than that — it’s just the name of this type of film that feels very pretentious. So, for the uninitiated, what is an essay film?

Speaking broadly, it’s not unlike the five-paragraph papers you had to write back in school. You remember those: First paragraph sets up your thesis, then you had three paragraphs where you made your argument, and then the final paragraph wrapped the whole thing up. That’s how we all learned to write essays.

Well, the essay film does something similar, except with moving images. In most cases, the director is trying to prove something — or at the very least, explore some idea. There’s usually not a plot or characters — the director is often drawing from existing footage and reshaping it for the point he or she is trying to make.

In 2013, the film publication Sight & Sound did a long overview of the history of the essay film, breaking down the genre in excellent detail. But to simplify things, the essay film is nonfiction, and it tends to be more intellectual or meditative than the typical documentary film — in part, because these movies tend to be about cinema itself. And we’ve had some great essay films in recent years. Here are a few I’d recommend.

  • Los Angeles Plays Itself is Thom Andersen’s exploration of how the City of Angels has been portrayed in movies over the years. A film scholar and professor, Andersen is a longtime L.A. resident, and his movie grapples with the ways in which the city is simplified on screen — and how filmmakers have created a cinematic L.A. that’s nothing like the real one. Los Angeles Plays Itself is fascinating for film lovers, as well as architecture buffs and people who love learning about the history of big cities — plus, it gives shout-outs to great, lesser-known L.A.-set dramas, like Killer of Sheep and The Exiles.
  • In Notfilm, Ross Lipman (a restorationist and archivist who also makes movies) burrows into his obsession with Film, a 1965 short film that starred an aging Buster Keaton and was written by renowned playwright Samuel Beckett. Film was a strange, experimental movie — Keaton famously had no idea what the hell he was making — and it quickly vanished from the public consciousness. Lipman examines the unlikely history of Film’s making, but he also riffs on both artists’ legacy, noting how weird it was that they ever hooked up in the first place. Notfilm touches on lots of topics — including mortality and the process of making movies — but it’s held together by Lipman’s curiosity and passion for his subject. You’ll get sucked in, too.
  • Room 237 is probably the best-known of these recent essay films, especially among horror buffs and Stanley Kubrick fans. This 2012 documentary, directed by Rodney Ascher, compiles a collection of different oddball theories about the hidden themes in The Shining. Ascher never shows his subjects, but we hear their voices over images from Kubrick’s fright-night classic. One theorist explains that the movie is really Kubrick’s way of acknowledging that he worked with NASA to fake the moon landing. Another goes into great detail about how The Shining is a commentary on the genocide of Native Americans. Some of these theories are insane … but the more you spend time listening to these people, the more plausible their goofy alternate readings of the movie become. Room 237 is a giddy trip down the rabbit hole of film-nerdom — it’s a fun place to get lost.