A fanfare of failures
Why have so many recent films celebrated artistic and sporting failures?
This year has seen the release of three films with a protagonist whose ambition and enterprise outstrips their talent: Marguerite (2015), Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) and Eddie the Eagle(2016).
Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins unfolds the career of the eponymous eccentric New York socialite of the 1930s and 1940s, whose idiosyncratic performance of coloratura soprano classics captured the attention of her wide circle of friends and even sold out Carnegie Hall. Her recordings are still commercially available, by repute the singularly worst of their genre and have been heard millions of times via YouTube.
Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite, also inspired by Jenkins, transposes her story to 1920s France, with a sure-footed attention to social history and cultural mores that retains the surreal charisma of her arc.
Drexel Fletcher’s Eddie the Eagle, meanwhile, tells the true story of Michael Edwards, who in 1988 became the first competitor since 1929 to represent Great Britain in Olympic ski jumping. Competing without funding, he placed last in the male ski jumping at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Like Jenkins, he evokes a mix of affection and disbelief.
Jenkins and Edwards – both technically incompetent but allegorically inspirational – retain strong traction in public culture. Steven Pye, writing for the Guardian, described Edwards in 2014 as a “star” who made a legitimate contribution to Winter Olympic history. The late David Bowie included a Jenkins album in his Vanity Fair countdown of his favourite records, granting her avant garde status.
These strange heroes embody the mantra of self-help culture: enough willpower can erase all impediments to achieving your goals. Neither gave up. And they shrugged off negative and hostile responses to focus on their objectives, just as self-help literature frequently advises.
Larry Horricks/Twentieth Century Fox
Yet at the same time, Jenkins and Edwards subverted meritocracy and claim privileges reserved for the celebrated. They also reflect the current trend of simultaneously revering and mocking celebrities. By cheering the loser, we reject hollow motherhood statements about excellence, and critique enterprise-based cultures.
Sincerity and redemption
Florence, Marguerite and Eddie, as characters, champion sincerity against officialdom and the mainstream. Their narratives endorse fandom and non-celebrity agency; the key premise is that participation holds equal weight to “winning” .
Within the scripted universe both Florence and Marguerite constantly emphasise their all-consuming passion for music. Eddie throws the words of the founder of the revived Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, back at pompous officials:
The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.
Whilst revered as camp for her lack of the expected hallmarks of a classical performer, Jenkins also remarkably precurses fan-made artforms like cosplay (fans dressing as favourite characters) fanfilm (film and video made by fans inspired by existing titles) and re-enactment, presenting a sort of unique fanopera. Jenkins thoroughly, if unintentionally, deconstructs widely held understandings of “classical music” as couth, ordered and perfectionist.
Marguerite and Eddie the Eagle, while very different films, are united in drawing extended metaphorical investigations from their protagonists’ life stories. The outsider winning has been a Hollywood staple for eight decades, either played straight as in 42nd Street (1933) and National Velvet (1944), or in the twist of “winning” by doing your best, as in the Music Man (1962).
Likewise, the washed up has-been finding redemption by training the outsider is seen in Cool Runnings (1993), Million Dollar Baby (2004) and many other titles. Cool Runnings is Eddie the Eagle’s most obvious cross-reference, set also at the 1988 Calgary games and featuring endearing outsiders challenging winter sports’ para-Aryan, Nordic perfection.
Frears pays homage to 1930s social comedies and the “ditsy but loveable upper-class lady” roles perfected by actress Billie Burke (most famous for her role as Glinda the Good Witch). These references are less tangible in recent public memory, but the constant art deco styling, glitter, high colour and upbeat pace confirm current popular notions of the interwar period as a special time of glamour and sparkle.
If the effective corporate citizen must renounce the folly of inappropriate self-delusion, Florence, Marguerite and Eddie refuse this edict spectacularly within their respective universes.
Beyond Jenkins and Edwards’ stories, heroic failures surface widely in real life. Central to the Gallipoli legend, for example, is tenacity and valour.
Corporate interests have also manufactured quirky outsider performances, such as Nike’s brief sponsorship of Kenyan cross country skier Philip Kimely Boit. In true Cool Runnings style, Boit was a runner who first saw snow two years before competing in the 1998 Winter Olympics. Unexpected rain created difficult starting conditions but when he crossed the finish line – dead last – he was met by Norwegian world champion and gold medallist Bjorn Daehlie.
Edwards’ summer games twin is swimmer Eric Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea, also known as Eric the Eel, who came in last in the 100 metres at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Invoked by reporters at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, he remains the archetypal loveable happy loser.
Since baseline qualifications for Olympic competitors were tightened explicitly to exclude Edwards, good-natured, underperforming athletes generally enter the Olympics by wildcards intended to ensure diversity issued to third world countries. Thus the question arises – although avoided in Edwards’ case – whether deliriously lauding failed athletes from developing nations is actually racist or patronising?
The distinction between laughing at or with someone may define a crucial difference between Frears' Florence Foster Jenkins and Giannoli’s Marguerite. Film lecturer Jane Mills argues thatFrears' slapstick tone is possibly cruel to Jenkins. The complex cultural references in Giannoli’s film, while less true to life, honour Jenkins by their intelligence and depth.
Yet the real Jenkins did not ponder existentialism or post-structural analysis of female language and agency. She is reported to have said:
People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.
Will there be enough work? That’s the basic question facing developed economies with flat growth as employment shifts from agriculture and manufacturing to services. It appears that there might not be jobs for the uneducated and unskilled.
One response to this is the idea of a universal basic income: the government gives everyone, rich and poor alike, a monthly stipend just for showing up for lunch. As a solution for unemployment, it has pedigree. Back in 1516 Thomas More mooted it inUtopia. One of his characters observes: "Instead of i[hanging thieves by the dozen], it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse."
One American journalist has called the UBI the “world’s simplest plan to end poverty” and the idea is gaining traction in the media. Finland is considering it. However, Swiss voters rejected it overwhelmingly in a referendum earlier this month. In our lead story today, Alejo Sison argues that a key question is missing from the debate: the dignity of work.
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