When you think of football hooliganism, you don’t normally think of people in well-paid middle-class jobs, such as teachers or City workers. The class-preconceptions of our society predispose us to thinking in terms of working-class or unemployed ‘yobbos’. One of the interesting things about the film, Green Street, is that it doesn’t trade in such myths. None of the hooligans depicted in this film fits the stereotype. In fact, when they are not being hooligans and slaking their thirst for violence, they are perfectly normal, sociable people, like ‘you, m and everyone else’. They even give up their seats to women on the tube.
So what is the fix? Why is the violence so necessary to them? According to the film-maker, Lexi Alexander, it has something to do with fathers who don’t spend quality-time with their sons. As good an explanation as any, I guess. Perhaps Achilles’ addiction to violence - both before and after the death of Patroclus - had similar roots, what with his dad, Peleus, gallivanting off all over the place while Achilles was still a wee laddie. So perhaps there is something in the explanation, after all. But isn’t this also the Freudian explanation for homosexuality. That would certainly explain Achilles’ huge grief at the death of Patroclus. Distant dads take the fall for a lot of things, it would seem, so why not football hooligans and queers as well? Blame it all on the breakdown of the nuclear family; single mothers have so much to answer for. What we need is a ‘back to basics’ approach.
But what are the basics? If there is one thing football hooliganism expresses, it’s a resurgence of tribalism. And how much more ‘back to basics’ can you get than that? And tribal family relations are somewhat different to nuclear family relations. Paternity, for example, was often unknown. Yet the sons seemed perfectly integrated into the tribe and as a result weren’t much given to hooliganistic excess. Warfare, perhaps, but hooliganism, no. Presumably there were other familial ‘support-structures’ which made dads - distant or not - an irrelevance.
Warfare. Now that’s a connection we could pursue. Tribal societies engaged in warfare, but it was non-alienated warfare, not the alienated kind that so-called civilised people engage in. They didn’t go to war because they were told to; they were not coerced into fighting, nor did they have a chain of command to transmit orders from above and maintain discipline in the ranks. Like just about everything else, warfare in our society is alienated and it is just possible that football hooligans wish to short-circuit some of this alienation and engage in warfare of a non-alienated kind, just like their tribal ancestors. So there’s another possible connection with tribalism - the hooligans’ revolt against civilisation - at least in the matter of warfare, and a ‘back to basics’ approach to the matter of fighting.
Unlike football hooligans, however, many tribal peoples didn’t seem to have batted an eyelid at same-sex relations. No doubt all those absent fathers not spending ‘quality-time’ with their sons made it inevitable - if we are to take Freud as our yardstick. This is another interesting thing about Green Street. The background hum of homo-social relations. Don’t confuse this with homosexuality. At least, not yet. Same-sex relations are well off the gaydar screen in this film - at least at first glance. Achilles and Patroclus, perhaps, but let’s not forget that, in Homer at least, they slept with slave-girls rather than each other - which doesn’t mean, of course, that we have to turn Patroclus into Achilles’ cousin, as was done in the film, Troy, in which Brad Pitt played the part of Achilles.
It may only be in their predilection for non-alienated warfare that football hooligans resemble tribal people. And it is unlikely that tribal people had a predilection for warfare in any case. War was simply a necessity to them, a way of preserving their territory or hunting-grounds, a means of survival. In relation to other tribes they lived in a ‘state of nature’, which football hooligans do not. They fight for kicks; it’s an addiction with them, even taking punches brings on a ‘high’, according to Matt Buckner (Elijah Wood) in the film. Their values are by and large the values of the wider society. They are not generated by the tribe itself, or, rather, the “firm”, but by the society they live in. Listen to Pete Dunham (Charlie Hunnam of Queer as Folk fame) talking to Matt Buckner, not long after they have met for the first time. “I just don’t get it. What is it wiv you Americans? You start a fucking war, bottle it, then we ’av to come and save your arse again.” There is no question here of self-consciously challenging alienated war-fare. He clearly accepts it. If they are ‘rebels’, their rebellion is entirely unconscious. It’s the rebellion of an unknown primitive self against the alienation of civilised life. And we must assume that the wider society’s values are accepted not just in matters of warfare, but sexuality also.
As I have said, many tribal societies seem to have accepted same-sex relationships without batting an eyelid. They saw them as part of the fabric of life. If Green Street is anything to go by, this is certainly not the case with football hooligans. In that little matter, they mirror the wider society. Yet, if what we’ve said about absent or distant fathers applies to both hooligans and homosexuals, then football hooligans have more in common with homosexuals than either, perhaps, would like to admit. They have distant or absent fathers in common. What does this mean? First that the intense homo-social bonding required for football hooligan firms provides a source of temptation for homosexual expression which must be rigidly guarded against. The repression must be even more severe than it is in the wider society. I think this repression is very important in Green Street, in the world it depicts and the homo-social relationships it explores.
Green Street, is a film which, I must confess, I am not absolutely sure how to take. What I mean by this is that I don’t know if it is meant to be taken simply at face value as a work of entertainment which has only one level of meaning, namely that which is explicit in the narrative. Or are there other levels of meaning at work in it? I’ll give you an example. Matt and Pete are the two main protagonists. For most of the film they live together. They are both the younger brothers of Shannon and Steve respectively, who are married to each other. There is absolutely no indication on the narrative level that Matt and Pete are lovers, but do the parallels between Shannon & Steve and Matt & Pete have some kind of symbolic significance which works at a deeper level than that of the narrative? Again, when Pete first claps eyes on Matt, he gives him a long hard stare and then says, “Jesus Shannon, you look rough.”, to which Shannon, in another part of the room, replies, “You’re a funny guy, Pete.” Are we meant to see this just as an innocent quip or is something else being implied, an attraction Pete feels which he has turned into a joke in order to kick it into touch? Am I simply reading the latter into the former? Probably, but I must confess that it is questions like this which have me confused as to the intentions behind the film. Confused, but also intrigued. (Another possibility you might consider here is the casting of Charlie Hunnam for the role, who first came to attention as the 15 year old Nathan Maloney in Queer As Folk. Resonances there perhaps?)
Whether I think it is a film that works on more than one level or is something less interesting depends on what I believe to be its intentions. As I have said, I am not totally sure; but I am going to give it the benefit of the doubt. The Director/Co-writer, Lexi Alexander is, after all, a woman, and so I very much doubt that she takes the almost exclusively male world she depicts in the film completely at its own measure. She may have mixed with German hooligans when she was younger, been a world kickboxing champion twice in succession and been part of a firm, but she is still a woman, and the fact that she is must give her something of an outsider’s perspective. We can also assume that, as a woman, she is not over concerned with preserving a male self-image and is quite able to see through it in men. Could it just be that while making a film whose primary purpose is entertainment, she has tried to say other things through it, things which aren’t on the narrative surface? That is a possibility I’d like to explore.
Most reviewers gave Green Street two stars, though The Guardian did give it four, I believe. So you see, it is not a great film we are talking about. It’s interest for me lies in other directions, of which the director is perhaps even unconscious, though, giving her the benefit of the doubt, she probably wasn’t. The narrative begins with what seems like a rather blatant contrivance to appeal to the American market. There was no real need for Shannon and Matt to be Americans; however, Americans, it seems, can only relate to other Americans, and so, to appeal to the American market, you need an American star. Enter ex-hobbit, Elijah Wood, who, unlike Charlie Hunnam, especially in full skin-head mode, looks almost too cuddly to be at home in the role of a ‘thug’. He plays the part of Matt Buckner, a Harvard journalism student who, after taking the fall for his wealthy roommate, Jeremy Van Holden (Terence Jay) when drugs are found in their residence, is expelled and flies off to London to stay with his sister, Shannon (Claire Forlani). Shannon is married to an English ex-football hooligan by the name of Steve Dunham (Marc Warren). Within hours of landing in England, Matt meets Steve’s younger brother, Pete. Pete is the leader of a firm of West Ham football hooligans called the GSE (Green Street Elite). However, Pete is not your stereotypical thug, but an intelligent, engaging and somewhat charismatic young man with an aggressive edge and a certain addiction to violence. At first, the meeting is a little bit strained. Matt is a bit of a ‘wimp’, and is no doubt a little bemused by Pete’s underlying aggression, and also, by the looks of it, a little bit mesmerised - as a rabbit might be by a ferret. Pete has come to borrow money from Steve, which Steve offers only on condition that he takes Matt to a football match, since he has planned a ‘romantic evening’ with his wife, which, of course, excludes Matt. However, instead of giving the money to Pete, he gives it to Matt and tells him not to give any to Pete, but to buy all the drinks himself. Once Pete and Matt hit the street, Pete tries to extort half the money from Matt with threats which, if not exactly explicit are certainly very clearly implied. Matt responds by distracting Pete’s attention and trying to kick him in the crotch, a move which Pete easily counters. Matt soon finds himself lying on the pavement, with Pete standing over him saying, “Serves you right for fighting like a bleeding tart.” That is, if you like, the beginning of Matt and Pete’s real relationship. For no apparent reason, just when he should be pressing home his advantage, Pete relents in his threatening behaviour towards Matt and gives up the idea of trying to extort the money from him. Though still somewhat bossy, his attitude softens, and the two go off to the match together.
What has happened? On the one hand, it could be that Pete’s change of demeanour is due to the fact that he has suddenly come to respect Matt for ‘standing his ground’. It would certainly fit in with the ethos he lives by. But there is no respect in his voice when he barks at Matt “...and for fuck’s sake stop saying soccer.” or shouts back at him over his shoulder: “Come on, ’urry up.” After all, respect usually implies treating the person you have come to respect with respect, and there is little sign of that in Pete’s behaviour towards Matt. On the other hand, it could be that Matt’s having fought “...like a bleeding tart!” has brought something out in Pete, something possibly ‘sexual’ in nature. I say ‘sexual’, though it is deflected and channelled along non-sexual pathways. What seems to have happened is that Pete has suddenly become the dominant partner in a relationship in which Matt has, equally suddenly, become the submissive one. His threatening behaviour has given way to one that is domineering instead, to which Matt seems to respond quite willingly. A new dynamic is set up between them, and it is, I believe, a disguised sexual dynamic?
On the tube a conversation takes place as to the relative merits of baseball or football. It is only necessary here to say that it turns on whether baseball is a girl’s game or not. Pete says it is and Matt says it isn’t. This is not the first indication, of course, that male self-image is an issue in Green Street.
After getting off the train, Pete takes Matt to the pub where the GSE usually meet before going to matches and introduces him to his friends. However, just before they enter the pub, Pete warns Matt not to tell anyone that his father is a journalist. Once they are in the pub, everyone behaves in a friendly manner towards Matt except Bovver (Leo Gregory), who is, as Matt later describes him in his journal, “Pete’s thuggish right-hand man.” Bovver resents Matt from the outset. Matt is an outsider; and perhaps the fact that he is also likeable and attractive, while Bovver is neither, has something to do with it. Bovver, clearly has some kind of special relationship with Pete - even if it is only as his “thuggish right-hand man”. He makes his hostility to Matt known at every available opportunity - first in the pub’s toilet and then just about everywhere else. At one point, this conversation occurs between Bovver and Pete. “Jesus, you two joined at the fucking hip, or what?” Pete: “Leave it out Bov; it’s starting to get old.” Bovver: “No, I’m starting to wonder about you two; if I didn’t know you any better, I’d say you were a couple of gay boys.” Pete responds in a quiet but menacing way. (Hunnam’s delivery here is superb.) The situation is diffused by their friends. They are all ‘hetero’ of course. After all, this is a very improbable culture to be gay in.
During Matt’s first full-scale ‘rumble’, after being rescued and looked after by a rather solicitous Pete, while his friends hammered the Birmingham supporters who had ‘jumped’ him on the way back from the match, Matt’s first concern is to look around to see where Pete is and go to his rescue. What seems obvious is that, just as Pete has developed protective feelings towards Matt, Matt in turn has begun to develop protective feelings towards Pete, who, to echo his sister later, has begun to enter his system. When the fight is over, Pete and the others rib him a little. “That first punch you threw. A little bit on the feminine side.” one says “A bit gay.” Pete follows, “Larry Grayson,” another quips, mimicking Matt’s over-arm punches, while Bovver looks on in annoyance? The following morning, after Matt had spent the night on Pete’s couch, and then returned with Pete to his sister’s, an altercation occurs between Matt & Pete on the one hand and brother Steve on the other, a violent altercation in which Matt comes to Pete’s rescue and then Pete comes to Matt’s against Steve. All that needs to be said about this is that it is curious how Steve’s heterosexual marriage to Shannon hasn’t completely cured him of violence! As a result of this altercation, Matt and Pete start living together, although, as I‘ve said, there is no suggestion that they are sleeping together as well.
This is the whole point. You must not see these characters as in any way gay. “Gay” & “Straight” are determinate identities - and, I believe, very confining ones. What we have here are repressed and disguised homosexual feelings which have no way of expressing themselves except in terms of the ethos of the firm and the homo-social bonding it requires. Gays have not really liberated themselves; they have simply settled for a social space in which they might be more easily exploited. To liberate themselves they would have to liberate ‘straights’, like Matt, Pete and Bovver, and this they have singularly failed to do. Hence the contempt Bovver is able to take for granted without even emphasising it in “a couple of gay boys”. (Although the slightly camp voice in which he says it speaks volumes about him, I think.) Gays are no longer “queers” as they used to be, but “gay boys”. That’s the extent to which gays have been ‘liberated’. The ‘Gay Revolution’ is a revolution that has stopped half-way in the name a gay identity. A gay identity, after all, is easily catered for by both politicians and businessmen. Gays have become both a ‘constituency’ and a market. I suppose this is inevitable in a ‘democratic’ capitalist society like ours. Nevertheless, the repressed homosexuality which I think I see in this film has nothing to do with a gay identity and that is what makes it so much more interesting.
Two other episodes in the film are worth mentioning before we move on. First is that in which Tommy Hatcher (Geoff Bell) - the leader of the GSE’s main rival firm, Millwall - uses the term “she” of Pete when Bovver makes his first visit to Millwall. He says: “Where is your other little girl? ... Petey. She at home is she?” And also later, when Bovver is about to betray the GSE to Hatcher and Hatcher asks him if he’s had a lover’s tiff - presumably with Pete. Remarks like this make me think that the film-maker was more aware of what she was doing than may be immediately apparent, because, on one level, that’s just what Pete and Bovver have had. Moreover, it is just possible that Hatcher has seen something in Pete and Bovver which those too close to them have been unable to see - including Pete and Bovver themselves. Of course, it could just be an innocent remark, but then there are rather a lot of such ‘innocent’ remarks connected to homosexuality in this film. Too many, I think, to ignore.
The second is the episode in the pub in which Matt is accused of being an undercover journalist. (He has told Pete that he studied history not journalism at Harvard, because he knows how much Pete and the others hate ‘fucking journos’.) Pete’s feeling of anger at being ‘betrayed’ by Matt is entirely understandable. It explains his initial violence towards Matt. However, when Steve intervenes on Matt’s behalf, asking Pete if he’s sure of his facts, and Matt explains himself, doubts begin enter his mind. A conflict with Bovver emerges when Matt says to Pete, a propos his having been seen at The Times with a couple of ‘journos’: “That was my dad. He’s the journalist. You knew that.” Such a revelation can only enflame Bovver, who turns it into an issue of Pete’s leadership of the firm. And then, when Pete intervenes violently against him as he tries to kick Matt on the floor, Bovver finally flips. He first appeals to Steve as the ex-leader of the GSE, accusing Pete of being “too much of a bottlejob to lead us”, but Steve sides with Pete. That is when the thought of betrayal enters his mind, I believe. He finally realises the truth just at the time when he was hoping to finally ‘nail’ Matt, that Pete has put Matt before himself in this confrontation, and he reacts like a jilted lover. Not that he is in any literal sense a jilted lover, but his behaviour follows the same contours as that of a jilted lover and that, I think, is what is important. It is as if all these repressed feelings existed in some parallel universe influencing the course of what goes on in this one without in any way making their presence directly felt. After all, what is uppermost in all of their minds is Pete’s status as the leader of the GSE. Nothing more. Nothing less. Finally, after Bovver has gone off to betray the GSE to Tommy Hatcher, and thus set in motion a chain of events which will lead to Pete’s death, the dominance-submission element in Pete and Matt’s relationship resurfaces as Pete barks angrily at the bloodied Matt “Get yourself cleaned up”, which Matt dutifully does.
After this scene it is largely downhill. The film’s ending is a huge disappointment. Neither Matt nor Pete come to any recognition of what has been driving their relationship and also destroying the firm, but then, perhaps we shouldn’t have expected that. Pete is killed, sacrificing himself so that Matt and Shannon can get away from a fight that has taken a dangerous turn, and all that Matt seems to have learnt from his death is that he can now kick butt with the best of them and therefore no longer has to play the wimp with Jeremy Van Holden. It is his way of ‘honouring’ Pete. It is a huge anti-climax and a sop to conventional values. But it was a commercial film and commercial films very rarely confront their audiences explicitly with issues that they might not be comfortable with. To have confronted these issues head on would have required a different film entirely, I suspect. Nevertheless, it is a film which - in my own mind at least - raises important questions concerning the male culture of violence and repressed homosexuality, and this makes it somehow a lot more intriguing than many films which are very much better.