by Frank Stricker
Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 6-7
SLAP SHOT is a film about hockey players. Its explicit rendering of the dirty words hockey players use and the bloody violence of the game have created a minor sensation. Does the film actually exploit the violence it portrays? Must we have all those dirty words up there on the screen? For different reasons, the answers are affirmative in both cases. SLAP SHOT does not know what it wants to say about violence, and, oddly, what saves the film are the dirty words.
SLAP SHOT deals with the Charlestown Chiefs, a minor league hockey team led by player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman). Charlestown is a steel town, and when the Chiefs learn that the mill is shutting down, they fear their own end. Already on the skids, they await a further drop in box office sales.
Meanwhile, the film touches on the relationships of athletes and their wives. Princeton educated forward, Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), is the sensitive humanist unwilling to sell out his talents for the sake of the box office. He is not getting along with his wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse), who drinks a lot, wears rough clothes, and is deeply unhappy. The film wants us to sympathize with her and the other wives, but we never really find out what is going on with the Bradens. Ned seems a nice enough fellow, but his wife apparently does not want to spend the rest of her life tagging along after her husband. On a general level, SLAP SHOT suggests that professional athletes are incapable of mature relationships with women.
Much of the film involves Reggie Dunlop's attempt to save the team and his career. He tries to discover who owns the team; he floats a rumor that someone in Florida will buy the team. He sleeps with the wife of an opposing goalie and she tells him that she often sleeps with women (suggesting again that male athletes are incapable of deep relationships with women and even worse that "a good fuck" can straighten out a lesbian). When the two teams meet, Newman uses this bit of information to rile the opposing goalie and win the game. Later Newman sends in three young players to start pushing the other teams around. From here on, the violence level rises, the blood spurts, and the story sorely tests our sense of reality.
There is plenty of violence in professional hockey, but in SLAP SHOT the violence bears little relationship to winning; often it is totally arbitrary, erupting even before the game is underway. And there is a great deal of it. So little time is left for scoring goals that it is hard to know how the Chiefs get their win-streak going.
SLAP SHOT takes an odd stance toward the game of hockey. It does put you down on the ice, but it shows none of the skill or dedication of the athletes. In hockey there can be a wonderful combination of grace and muscle — a ballet of the brawny. And there is a tremendous release of tension when, finally, after scrambling and pushing and shoving, the puck slips into the net, the red light goes on, and the players raise their sticks in celebration. SLAP SHOT presents little of the game's drama or athletic skill. In fact, it actually plays to the basest impulses that move hockey fans.
Violence puts the Chiefs into contention for the championship. Reggie Dunlop hopes that the team's success will save it, but when he visits the club's owner (Kathryn Walker), she tells him that the team will fold because it is more valuable to her as a tax write-off than as a going concern. She tells Dunlop to his face that television violence influences children and she certainly would never allow her children to watch a hockey game. Dunlop exits with an obscenity and we sympathize with his outrage.
This is a climactic scene in the film. Scriptwriter Nancy Dowd told the Los Angeles Times that what really interested her was who profited from violence in sports ("She Put the Words in Slap Shot's Mouth," Los Angeles Times Calendar, March 20, 1977). But aside from making the obvious but important point that the ruling class profits from its employees and cares nothing for their welfare, the scene is superficial. A far more interesting point is how the whole ruling class benefits from the release of aggression in sports and the media. Dowd's point, focused on the immediate self-interest of the owner, remains at the level of muckraking.
Following the scene, Dunlop returns to his team with a new message. If they are going to fold, they will go out in style. Rather unconvincingly, he preaches that violence is bad stuff. At this point, the film's comic-book qualities finally overwhelm any sense of reality it has. Instead of a resolution, we get a fantasy of villainy and innocence, and a structure of flips and flops.
In the final championship game, the opposing team mercilessly pummels the Chiefs. The Chiefs decide to come out fighting in the second period — all except for Ned Braden who sits alone on the bench. Suddenly his wife, having shed her army jacket and now done up conventionally like the other wives, appears in the stands. Apparently inspired by this "real woman," Braden skates around the ice doing a strip tease. A villain from the opposing team stops beating on the Chiefs long enough to notice and complains to the officials: "Make him stop that! That's disgusting!" (The moral for the audience of course is the opposite: violence is more obscene than this innocent nudity). The villain pushes the official who — enter the deus ex machina — promises that the game will be forfeited to the Chiefs if he shoves once more. Of course he does and the Chiefs win the championship.
Everything seems to end right and we are supposed to share in the Chiefs' elation. But what has been said about violence and success in sports is impossibly muddied. Violence brought the Chiefs into the playoffs, even if it took the gesture of a flower child, stripping down to his athletic supporter, to win the series. Where is the message of this film that seems to have so many messages?
There has been much debate about the foul talk and violence in the film. Apparently director George Roy Hill had to fight with Universal to keep the dirty words. And he was right. In terms of realism, this is it. Athletes, especially hockey players, cannot exhale without emitting an obscenity. And we all know that in real life people do talk dirty. Moreover, in the film the point seems to be that the players talk a lot about fucking, but are unable to maintain fulfilling relationships with women.
But while the dirty language adds a great deal to the film's realism it is also the locus of the film's nearly rabid anti-gayness (the perfect film for Anita Bryant). To begin with the men continually abuse each other as sissies and cocksuckers. While this homophobia is typical among American athletes, to reproduce it uncritically in the film and give it the added support of Paul Newman, a noted Hollywood liberal, is disgusting and lends support to the men who beat up and kill gay men all over the country.
The violence is another question. Critics have attacked SLAP SHOT for exploiting the very thing it seems to deal with. And they are right. Both the scriptwriter and the director have argued that since there are no rapes or weapons or serious injuries, this is not a violent film. (L.A. Times Calendar, March 20, 1977). In that case they have committed a non sequitur. The violence is so bloody it should have resulted in serious injuries. In further defending his film, director Hill also claimed that the violence is "cartoon violence", treated farcically. In fact, the most graphic scenes are the bloodiest. Sometimes the characters involved and the occasions for violence are silly and arbitrary. But the fisticuffs and blood seem terribly real.
Whether it intends to or not, the film raises a major question about sports violence: why do audiences want blood? Here the film fails abysmally. It might have observed the lives of the people who watch sports. Since this film takes place in a steel town, why not show us the inside of a steel mill? Why not suggest something of the web of authoritarian relationships, the boring labor, and the waning community life that affect many American workers, repressing their instincts for expression and assertion? The nearest this film comes to catching working-class reality is in the words of a player who fears the team may fold: "Fucking Chrysler Plant, here I come."
Dowd claimed that she did not want to make a big statement about Violence, even though violence seems to overwhelm the film. What about her lesser purpose of showing that "the violence we have in our entertainment is the thing that prevents people, especially men, from growing up" ("Four-Letter Screenwriter," Newsweek, March 7, 1977)? The film gives us no insight into why men — or the people who come to watch them bang each other around — are violent. It equates violence, adolescence, and bad vision by making the most aggressive players three young brothers who wear thick glasses and still play with toys. But this is a cartoon rather than an explanation. It is not self-evident that men fail to "grow up" because of the violence in their sports. It is rather more likely that the violence, crimped emotional life, and the blatantly anti-gay feelings which the men in this film display, derive from the structure and ideology of sexism and capitalist competitiveness. To state the obvious, violence is not a cause but a result of something larger and deeper.
It appears that what brought this film to life was the following: through her brother, a minor league hockey player, Nancy Dowd found out that athletes talk dirty. Fascinated, she taped their every word, and, with a vaguely feminist impulse, she concocted a script that would at once play to the sports crowd while making a statement about male violence and sexism. Inevitably things get confused. The plot has more twists and turns than one can follow; it lacks real ideas. What is left is the dirty talk, cartoon portraits of violent athletes, a stab at the ruling class, and the point that violence is more obscene than dirty words. But not much more.
It's too bad. There have been a rash of sports films in the last year, and the two most popular, ROCKY and SLAP SHOT, are both ultimately shallow. ROCKY is an existentialist fantasy — the American dream with Hemingway's sensibility — a story of the dogged devotion of the little guy, and finally, of his ability to withstand punishment. SLAP SHOT is a mishmash of violence and funny dirty talk, touched with a hint of social criticism. We are still waiting for a sports film that at once communicates the appeal of sports to audiences and players, and suggests the deeper causes of its perversion in a capitalist economy.