Thursday, November 7, 2013

Notes on Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets


Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets opens with a foreboding and portentous image of the Winnipeg Arena. The image of the arena is poor, with glaring distress of the video on the sides. A drone whines uneasily as the arena comes more fully into view. A newscaster's voice, easily identifiable by the common cadence, intones these words:
You wouldn't think a smaller city smackdab in the middle of the country wouldn't be a violent place but it obviously is.
With its opening 30 seconds, Death by Popcorn provokes an emotional response from its audience. The film asks the audience to feel anxious, and in a complex way, asks that the audience tie their anxiety to their memories of the Jets. The traditional set of emotions that accompany rituals of sport should be complicated, this opening shot demands. The subtitle of the film claims that this is tragedy, but surely this is horror.


If the personal is political, then the emotional is political as well. In her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes:
Pain has often been described as a private, even lonely experience, as a feeling that I have that others cannot have, or as a feeling others have that I myself cannot feel. And yet the pain of others is continually evoked in public discourse. (20)
If Death by Popcorn is about anything, it is about what Elizabeth V. Spelman calls co-suffering. Spelman argues that the presentation of other people's negative feelings leads to an appropriation of those negative feelings. This is not simple empathy, where we imagine ourselves skating in another person's shoes. Rather, this is parasitism. When I am presented with the other's feelings, the other is constituted by me. The other person is produced through my appropriation of emotion. In order for the other to be real, I must feel as they feel. In this way, the body is absent, and the emotion is only real element: "the body is absent because it is perpetually outside itself, caught up in a multitude of involvements with other people" (Ahmed 26). Bodily surfaces are only constituted through my appropriation of the other's bodily pain. The other's body does not exist until I feel it. For Jets fans, they co-suffer with the Jets, with their failure, and in turn, appropriate the failure themselves. Winnipeggers feel their shame of the Jets through each other, as a mass experience, through a mass ritual of pain and mourning.


In his book, Among the Thugs, journalist Bill Buford writes of British sporting events:
I had always assumed that a sporting event was a paid-for entertainment, like a night at the cinema; that it was an exchange: you gave up a small part of your earnings and were rewarded by a span (an hour, two hours) of pleasure, frequently characterized by features—edible food, working lavatories, a managed crowd, a place to park your car—that tended to encourage you to return the following week. I thought this was normal. I could see that I was wrong.(19)
Buford's book about football hooligans was one of many accounts of the ritualistic and often organized violence inherent to the British football culture. He writes of his slow descent into the darker, lesser known parts of footie fandom, such as the ties with the National Front and the EDL.

Jets fandom might not have had the overt racism and criminality that hooliganism has, but Death by Popcorn gestures towards the seemingly inevitable link between the two. The ritualistic displays of tribal fealty, the chanting, and the investment into collective feeling all contribute to the inexorable comparison between sports fandom and ritual violence.

The terrorism of hooliganism finds its older mature brother in Death by Popcorn. A man holding a microphone interviews another man outside the arena. He wears a scarf that appears vaguely Middle-Eastern, almost like a terrorist.

Later (around 48 minutes into the film), brief glimpses can be seen of two masked men standing over a third on his knees, his head covered. Behind the men, a cloth banner with vaguely Arabic writing hangs. A modified Oilers logo on the banner looms over the three men. This sequence, staged for the film, mobilizes the signifiers of films made by terrorists, a oft-seen image in the years following the 9/11 attacks (though existing long before). As the kneeling man reads what is presumably a manifesto written by the "terrorists" (as per the logic of these films), one of the terrorists hits his stick on the ground. The hockey sticks stand in for the cheap AK-47s that terrorists often hold in these videos, but this has another significance in the sense that the banging of the stick on the ice is a common way for players to signal to their teammates. In this section of Death by Popcorn, the banging of the stick is a threat. Listen to the message, obey the message, or face the consequences. Obey the group, follow the group, or face cataclysm.


Death by Popcorn has a subtle but distinct interest in architecture. The outside face of the Winnipeg Arena opens and closes the film, while there are countless shots of inside the arena in the rest of the film. The dilapidated arena at the very end of the film speaks to the "broken dreams" of the city, and its failure to maintain a major league sports team. A careful link is established between the fortunes of the city, both figuratively and literally, and the Winnipeg Jets. It is not hard to create a symbolic link between a city's prosperity and its architecture.

In the advent of postmodernism and the cementing of globalization, "dominant buildings have long ceased to be those in which political and public power resides but are rather those of private finance and corporate investment" (Rykwert 6). In the reign of neoliberalism, the small government, both in the sense of organization and in visibility, must not be involved in the regulation of business. Decreased visibility of state power means increased visibility for corporate power. The Winnipeg Arena, by dint of its name and thus implicit government link, was doomed to fail. Proponents of neoliberalism argue that any regulation of the market, any governmental hand in the free market leads to impotence. This is literalized in the film when Susan Thompson, then current mayor of the city, expresses that she (and thus the government) tried everything to maintain the Jets' presence. But the very act of government intervention leads to impotence, according to the tenets of neoliberalism. The municipality's meddling was doomed to fail; the free market giveth and taketh away.


The great move that Death by Popcorn takes is to tie together the sense of loss inherent in the urban experience with how the citizens linked their civic pride with the successes and failures of the city. As Joseph Rykwert writes in his book, The Seduction of Place, the very moment of urbanity is by definition an absence of the "natural" state. Moving into the city means giving up nature, giving up the natural, default condition of living creatures. This absence is felt, internalized, and then reworked as a coping mechanism. The melancholy for nature is reconstituted in opposite, as a fear of anything outside the city walls.

The constant threat of the outside world weighs heavily in the film. A false rivalry is set up in Death by Popcorn between the mediocre teams of Winnipeg and Edmonton. The latter city is constituted as the Other, a villainous but ridiculous team as symbolized by the goofy Wayne Gretzky. The other is produced through the earnest intense feeling of optimism for the Winnipeg Jets. As Lauren Berlant writes in "Cruel Optimism," "when we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us" (20).

The sense of loss of nature by virtue of urbanity, the production of civic pride through sports fandom, and the inevitability of the loss of the Jets leads to an intense feeling of cruel optimism. Berlant writes, "cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a problematic object in advance of its loss" (21). The intensity of feeling for the Jets is only made more ridiculous in the light of the inevitability of the Jets' loss. The agent of loss for the Jets is blamed not on capital or neoliberalism, but on the popcorn.


The film uses survivalist rhetoric to complement this condition of loss. A masked man hisses at the viewer that there is impending cataclysm. “Our civilization must survive,” the voice intones. Text on the screen reads “Spend Money,” a injunction. The logic suggested by this sequence is that consumerism and capital might be enough to save the Jets. However, as cruel optimism points out, this survivalist discourse is a stop-gap measure. The loss of the Jets is inevitable, despite the apocalyptic overtones of the film. The man repeats that “we must prepare for cataclysm.” In this way, the masked man is one of few voices of reason, despite the hyperbolic rhetoric. However, all is for naught. To reiterate, the loss of the Jets is inevitable, and even with that knowledge, people “choose to ride the wave of the system of attachment that they are used to” (Berlant 23).

The man in the mask looks to foment fear in the Jets fans but it is more accurate to speak of the fans relation to the Jets as anxiety. There is a difference between fear and anxiety which is "most often represented in the terms of the status of the object" (64).  Fear is an emotional reaction to to an identifiable threat, whereas anxiety is a "tense anticipation of a threatening but vague event" (64). In this case, the vague event, not quite defined is the cataclysm, the apocalyptic loss of the Jets. As one young man says in the film, "What is there in this city without the Jets?" or "What can we do in the winter?" In the logic of Jets fans, the answer is that there is nothing. Civic identity and pride is so intricately tied into the public spectacle and ritual of the sports team. The film asks, in a larger sense, for the sports fans to complicate their feelings, to think not about the traditional physical violence of the sports ritual, but about the emotional violence from this anxiety, this cruel optimism for the Jets, this painful attachment.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004. Print.

Berlant, Lauren. "Cruel Optimism." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17.5 (2006): 20-36. Print.

Buford, Bill. Among the Thugs. London: Arrow, 2001. Print.

Rykwert, Joseph. The Seduction of Place. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 

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