Friday, February 2, 2018

The Exquisite Propaganda of NFL Films

It's Super Bowl time, and although I have soured on watching men bash their brains into mush for my amusement, I did watch a lot of the playoffs. There were some good games, and they reminded me why I once really cared about NFL football.

My interest in the game was certainly fueled by watching matches on television, but perhaps just as much from the programming produced by NFL films. In the days before ESPN's NFL primetime, I would watch their weekly half-hour show summarizing one of the week's games. The high quality film stock, booming soundtrack, slow motion clips, and John Facenda's unmistakable voice entranced me. By being at the field level, rather than from above as on TV, the NFL Films programs provided a stunning intimacy. Later on, when my family got ESPN, that content-starved network would just run all of the half-hour NFL Films summaries of the games. NFL Films is a salient example of how the NFL was so much better at promoting itself than other sports, once of the key reasons it became the most popular spectator sport. Nowadays from CTE to protests the NFL no longer seems capable of controlling its own narrative.

As false as the old NFL narrative was, NFL Films mythologized it perfectly. Here's a few clips I still remember fondly.

Super Bowl XII

I hate admitting this, but in my youth I was a Dallas Cowboys fan. This is because my best friend was one too, and they had cool uniforms and the city of Dallas had prestige in my eyes due to the TV show of the same name. I used to love watching this doc about the Cowboys creaming the Broncos in 1978, especially the section that starts at 18:40. There's what can only be described as a heavy metal symphonic score as the Cowboys defense mercilessly blitzes and tackles. The music and field-level slow motion turn what look like routine plays on the broadcast into gladiatorial combat.

"Autumn Wind"

Steve Sabol, who went on to head NFL Films after his father, wrote this bit of verse. Yes it is overblown but it also captures something of the spirit of those rough and tumble 1970s Raiders teams.

"Ice Bowl"

Perhaps no game cemented the NFL's mythos more than the 1967 championship game, better known as the "Ice Bowl." The Packers and Cowboys battled in temperatures well below zero, the game one on that gut-checkiest of plays: a quarterback sneak. NFL Films turned each game into a kind of balletic war where men strained under harsh circumstances to push themselves to the limit. This one seemed to defy human limits of endurance. Games like this gave the NFL a masculine mystique compared to other sports.

Super Bowl IV

I always loved the doc for Super Bowl IV because they mic'ed Hank Stram, the gabby Chiefs head coach. You can get a taste at minute 3. With his suit and demeanor he always struck me as a kind of old timey, fast-talking hustler.

"Round Up"

OK, this isn't a video, but a great example of Sam Spence's music for NFL Films. It's like Ennio Morricone but more martial. I like to listen to it on the tail-end of my morning commute on Mondays so I can get psyched for the week ahead.

Willie Brown's Interception in Super Bowl XI

This might be the most iconic NFL Films moment. Willie Brown, the great aging defensive back known as "Old Man Willie" by his teammates, made a great interception that he ran back for a touchdown. It sealed the game for the Raiders. I have always been struck by the great close-up, slow motion shot of Brown running it back. The look of sheer determination mixed with quiet triumph on his face is really something. You can see it at 18:25.

Best of Football Follies

When I got my Sports Illustrated subscription for Christmas in 1988, I also got a VHS copy of this exquisite compilation of bloopers and oddities. NFL Films took even routine blow plays and fuckups and turned them into high comedy. At minute 34 is some classic footage of mic'ed up coaches getting salty.

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