A few years back, the godfather of modern documentary filmmaking, Errol Morris, did some short features for ESPN. They’re all available on Grantland’s Errol Morris Week page — at least for now. The website hosting the page no longer exists; ESPN canned it because of personality conflicts with its founder, Bill Simmons. Based on his television appearances, Simmons does come across as an arrogant jerk. But he did bring skilled writers onto his website and goaded ESPN into hiring great filmmakers for its sports documentary series.
So who knows how long ESPN will keep the archived website up. For now, you can watch the Morris films on it. They’re all worthwhile.
The Subterranean Stadium
One of those films, The Subterranean Stadium, had me bawling halfway through, and I didn’t stop. It’s about grown-up high school friends who gather every Sunday to play toy electric football. They’ve been doing this in what they call their Subterranean Stadium since 1981.
Little plastic players rest on a toy football field that vibrates when you turn it on. Each player stands on a rectangle with plastic rudders underneath; you can adjust the rudders to make the player move left or right when the vibration starts. When a defender’s rectangle touches the ball carrier’s, that guy is tackled. You switch off the vibrating motor, and the humans set up their rudders for the next play.
I had my own Subterranean Stadium, so to speak. I got one of these toy football games as a Christmas present one year. And I loved it. The gameplay was fun (I had no friends, so I would play both sides and see who won). But what I really loved was the painting. The players came in default shapes (blocker, runner, tackler, and so on) and two default colors. I saved up my allowance to buy model airplane paint and painted Seattle Seahawks jerseys on one team, Green Bay Packers on the other. (I picked the Packers because one of the default plastic colors was a Packer color, so I saved money on the pants paint. The Seahawks were my favorite team.)
From Football to Model Making
This began a half-decade obsession with model making. From about eight to 13, I loved models. My father was horribly mentally ill, and our home was a stressful one. Making models was kind of a Zen thing. I blocked out the madness around me. Or I did until I hit puberty hard, and realized models made me look nerdy (along with every other aspect of my personality). I kinda want to go back and try a new model again, someday. Painting all the little pieces before you glue them together was pretty fun.
But it started with me painting those plastic football players. I saw the games on TV, I knew uniforms weren’t unicolor. So I painted all the players. Right down, if I recall, to the colored stripe down the side of each pants leg.
There were even little stickers featuring team numbers you could put on the players! And guess what — there still are. Yes, the same company still makes the same game. You can order sets with two team jerseys pre-painted (Yuck! Painting’s the whole fun!) and it’s dent-resistant.
(Slow) Disaster Strikes
The game I used was prone to denting because it was made of thin metal. Getting excited over setting up the next play meant I sometimes dented the field with an elbow. Eventually this meant the entire field was inside an event horizon; no matter how you set the plastic rudders, all the players would converge on the biggest dent.
I begged and begged my father to buy me a new one. I promised to paint his favorite football teams instead of mine. As he was mentally ill, he was cruel, and mocked me for ruining that Christmas present.
A Memory Returned
I’d totally forgotten about this before seeing The Subterranean Stadium. I only stumbled upon it recently. Strangely, I was looking for some information on the inner life of mascots.
The men in this film gather in a basement to play toy electric football, tourney-style. The basement, Subterranean Stadium, is an homage to the obsession they have with this game. There are shelves upon shelves of plastic players in different uniforms. Need I say, all-hand-painted.
As the film continued, I saw my abused childhood self in these middle-aged men. They’d suffered disease. Heartbreak. War. Prison. Their Sunday basement gaming wasn’t mocked as pathetic, the way a lesser filmmaker would have presented it. It was shown as almost triumphant. Despite it all, these old friends still manage to lose their stress once a week, playing and laughing together over a toy football game.
A Great Insight Into Everyone
Errol Morris, who used to be an insurance investigator, is the best interviewer that documentary films have ever seen. Like a sneaky cop, he puts people at ease, gets them to open up by not being judgmental. But unlike a sneaky cop, he’s not interested in damning anyone. What fascinates him is the subjectivity of existence and perception. It’s the Rashomon thing; different people witnessing the same event will have different accounts.
As I said, The Subterranean Stadium is short; about 20 minutes long. It’s about oddballs, and it’s extremely compassionate. See it before ESPN deep-sixes the host website. And it’s on this page. You just have to click once.