|Issue No 29||03 September 1999|
David Ceasar on Softening Up Tactics
Extracted from "Playing the Man"
- Edited by Katherine Biber, Tom Sear and Dave Trudinger (Pluto Press)
The title for this conference - Playing the Man - is an intriguing one to me; it obviously refers to some of the artifices and contradictions within masculinity. To me, however, it relates directly to my experiences while growing up, playing rugby league as a kid in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then (and, I believe, in a more hidden way now), there were two distinct ways rugby league was played: either 'playing the ball' or ;playing the man'.
'Playing the ball' is where you are concentrating on what the ball is doing and what you think is going to happen to the ball - where it is who has it and what they are going to do with it. Obviously, there are players who are better at this than others.
Fortunately, there is a whole other aspect of the game for people who don't have a lot of 'ball' skills.
'Playing the Man' - like masculinity itself - has become largely discredited at its most blatant. It involves a bit of biff, a punch-up in a scrum or behind play, preferably behind the referee's back. Most of the time, however, playing the man involves what is called 'softening them up'. Generally, this involves doing things that, while technically legal, are more often about hurting other players.
When I used to play, I was a forward - and I'd play the man'. Everyone knew it and accepted it as one of my jobs on the football field. It worked like this: at half-time, we would stand around sucking on orange quarters, trying to get our breath back, and the coach would come up to me and say, 'Caesar!' Actually, he wouldn't say it; he'd always sort of yell it. So, anyway, the coach would come up to me and he'd say, 'That little prick, the five-eighth, soften him up a bit.' Then he'd give me a wink and a whack across the shoulders.
Now, the bloke I was going to soften up would always be someone who was good at playing the ball and would almost invariably be smaller in stature. We would go out onto the field and , when the other team got the ball, I'd stay behind the play, stay behind the defensive line, and keep going with the ball's movement across the field, waiting until I thought the five-eighth, the 'little prick', was going to get the ball. And he'd usually be targeted because he was a play-maker.
When he was about to get the ball, I'd make my move, I'd try to pre-empt it so he was off balance when he took hold of the ball. And I'd hit him with my shoulder, the corner of it in his guts, knocking the wind out of him and driving him into the dirt.
I'd get up and smile at him, probably offer him a hand and, for the rest of the game, he'd be a bit off, distracted, wondering where I was on the paddock. I wouldn't get near him again, but it would hamper his game and his team, if only a little bit.
The reason I played the man instead of the ball was that I was scared of the bloody thing. It never worried me getting the wind knocked out of me, or a kick in the head, or whatever. Never worried me for a moment. But the ball scared me. I always knew I was going to drop the bloody thing, it would slip through me fingers as though they were covered in oil. I didn't care if I got hurt. I was terrified of looking like a dickhead.
In spite of being afraid of the ball, I liked it. I liked being out there. When I was playing rugby league, I knew who I was - I had a job to do, I knew what was expected of me and it was something I was pretty good at. It was about my physicality, my body, the lump of meat and bone and gristle that, in most other parts of my life, just got in the way. Being a big boofhead was a good thing on the football field. And all that stuff - the aggro and the hurt I meted out, and the hurt I felt - was real and tangible, and it made me feel comfortable in my body, comfortable in my maleness. I felt like I belonged to something and what we were - smelly, sweaty, often hairy and plug-ugly - was alright.
After the game, we would come off the field and the bloke I drove into the dirt would have a beer with me, have a laugh with me. The rules of engagement were completely clear between us.
Why I'm telling you this story, I don't really know. But I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere.
I wonder about those kids down in Bankstown, the ones that shot up the cop station. You have to wonder if, in that moment, when they were pulling the trigger, if they felt inside themselves, inside their bodies, boiling with hormones and sexual frustration. I wonder why the response to the situation is to say that kids need more parental discipline and the cops need more powers against them. Not many people are talking about all that energy inside them that needs to be channelled into something as pointless as a rugby league game.
I made a film a couple of years ago about unchannelled male energy. It was called Idiot Box. It was about two young boofheads called Mick and Kev who lived in a world that didn't really make room for them, so they made room for themselves. The did this by robbing a bank. As far as they were concerned, they were doing something positive. The key to them was in doing something, not just giving in. I was surprised by the lack of comment in the media on the issues that the film raised, surprised that something that I thought was one of the most pressing problems in Western society wasn't seen as important by anyone else.
I guess it takes real kids with real machine guns to make people take notice.
There is an argument that film is a medium of doing: a verb rather than a verbal form of entertainment. The masculine icon in films never really changes. John Wayne or Bruce Willis or a pre-pubescent boy in a big boat, they always do stuff. The concept of 'masculinity' itself beings to mind ideas like doing instead of discussing. It's a word that is thrown around a lot these days, usually as a pejorative term, and many of its associated emotions are thought to be, at best, impractical and, at worst, completely outdated.
I think that the ideal male icon in moving pictures for disaffected blokes is the porn star. For a lot of men, men who feel isolated, the idea that women want them for their physicality - just their body - is very exciting.
Porn stars don't have jobs or a lot of money. They don't talk about anything. They don't do anything other than have sex. Their bodies never fail them. They always have an erection, they never come prematurely. But, most importantly, the women are never let down, the men are never failures. They are never berated for being too fast or slow or rough or gentle. In this lurid world of boofheads and bimbos, the women are never disappointed.
So, a lot of men are out there alone with their cable sports station and their video tapes of blokes with big dicks and satisfied women, hiding from real women, scared of them, and scared that they won't measure up.
My first feature was called Greenkeeping. It was a film about a bloke who was stuck, couldn't get things done, talked to people a lot - and it was seen as a total failure. I'm trying to get a film made at the moment called Mullet - a story about not being able to leave your past behind. It is basically a lot of men and women sitting around in lounge rooms and pubs talking about, or not being able to talk about, what they feel. The funding bodies' response to it is that maybe it's not really a movie. Not enough happens.
With Idiot Box, get a couple of boofheads jumping around and shooting and carrying on, and I get five-out-of five on "The Movie Show'.
This is an edited version of the keynote address presented at the Playing the Man conference, held at the University of Sydney, Australia, on 13 November 1998.
David Caesar is an Australian director of feature films, documentaries and television. His films include Greenkeeping, Idiot Box, Body Work and Car Crash.
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