Sunday, August 21, 2016

Olympics on film

In her memoirs, Leni Riefenstahl described the image that started to form when she was approached to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “In my mind’s eye,” she writes, “I could see the ancient ruins of the classical Olympic sites slowly emerging from paths of fog and the Greek temples and sculptures drifting by: Achilles and Aphrodite, Medusa and Zeus, Apollo and Paris, and then the discus thrower of Myron. I dreamed that this statue changed into a man of flesh and blood, gradually starting to swing the discus in slow motion.”

Six minutes into Riefenstahl’s Olympia, this exact scene comes to life. In a shot as aesthetically loaded as it is politically, Myron’s statue of a sinewy discuss-thrower, Discobolus, transforms into nude decathlete Erwin Huber. As with so many scenes in the film, one could see this as a tribute to the beauty of the human form or as a confirmation of the Nazi ideal of Germans as a master race, true inheritors of Greek physical prowess. That’s what makes viewing any Riefenstahl film so complicated: she was one of the great visionaries of cinema, whose most famous works glorified Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Olympia is an ode to the human form in stillness and in motion. Few directors have captured bodies on film the way Riefenstahl did. Watching the film, it’s quickly apparent that the director is largely uninterested in chronology and dry detail; she’d rather show an athlete in follow-through than follow a javelin in flight. Editing for 18 months, Riefenstahl cut out all the prose. We’re left with the poetry: the opening with the nude bodies; the long, relaxed passage with athletes stretching and practising; the astonishing diving sequence that becomes increasingly abstract. Whatever the overarching ideology, there’s no doubt that Riefenstahl found beauty in all races, whether in the graceful form of Jesse Owens (whose interactions with Riefenstahl are an intriguing subplot in the fictional biopic Race) or the wiry Korean Kitei Son, who won the gold in the marathon for Japan.

Riefenstahl’s closeness to the Nazi Party has resulted in critics seeing what they want to see in Olympia. American critics Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, often at odds with each other, regarded it as a masterpiece. Many others have glimpsed in all those perfect bodies and the emphasis on winning a “fascist aesthetic”. Most everyone agrees about one thing, though: the film is a masterpiece, possibly the greatest sports documentary ever made.

Though Romolo Marcellini made a straightforward documentary on the 1960 Rome Games, the next great Olympic film arrived in 1965: Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad. Ichikawa, the well-known Japanese director of Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp, was given charge of the project when his even better-known countryman Akira Kurosawa backed out. His 170-minute documentary captured the 1964 Tokyo Games in fetching widescreen Cinemascope. It’s every bit as remarkable as Riefenstahl’s film, and very different. If Olympia was Fritz Lang—taut, Teutonic, designed within an inch of its life— Tokyo Olympiad was Robert Altman—loose, funny, with an eye for eccentric detail.

Even more so than Riefenstahl, Ichikawa seems uninterested in following events from start to finish. The scoreboard is rarely shown and athletes are only identified by name occasionally. Neither is his film obsessed with winners. Ichikawa has an eye for the stragglers, the triers and the forgotten. There’s the moment when Ranatunge Karunananda of Sri Lanka does the last lap of the 10,000m after everyone else has finished, the sympathetic crowd cheering him on. And there’s the brief shot of the pentathlete on his cross-country run, a lone figure against the orange sunset. He placed 37th. “We can only surmise what he learnt from this hard experience,” the narrator says.

The somberness of such moments – there’s a vignette involving a mournful-looking runner from Chad – is balanced by a wry humour that seems designed to undercut the sense of occasion that Ichikawa’s financiers were probably hoping he’d play up. The comedy that ensues when the release of pigeons during the opening ceremony goes somewhat awry – athletes ducking and laughing, one of them walking a few steps to give a confused bird a nudge – is in contrast to the orderly build-up that has come before. The enthusiastic narration adds to the film’s charm, combining arcana (“He’s studying the elasticity and resilience of fiberglass,” we’re informed about a pole vaulter) with a genuine sense of appreciation (“This is a sight that warms our hearts,” as the runners complete the marathon).

Its incidental pleasures are so many that it’s easy to forget what an excellent sports film Tokyo Olympiad is. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa oversaw 164 cameramen, who used light-weight Arriflex cameras with zoom lenses, which allowed Ichikawa to insert the viewer into the midst of the action. A wrestling bout unfolds in extreme close-up, every grunt and gasp registering. In the weightlifting event, the camera lingers on the athletes’ legs, which tremble under the strain of the hoist. In the free rifle competition, we’re only shown the shooters’ eyes. Slow motion is used often, most memorably for the 80m women’s hurdles final, and at the start of the gymnastics sequence, where an athlete in red practices against a black background.

Ichikawa must have had a special fondness for the Olympics, because he turned up again as one of the filmmakers on Visions of Eight, the portmanteau documentary on the 1972 Munich Games. Eight directors were invited to make shorts whatever piqued their fancy at the Games. Mai Zetterling followed the weightlifters, Arthur Penn the pole-vaulters, Ichikawa the runners. Yuri Ozerov chronicled the start of the Games. Michael Pfleghar concentrated on women athletes. Miloš Forman set the decathlon to music ranging from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to yodeling.

On paper, Visions of Eight sounds tantalising; yet, the result is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, no one could have guessed how similar the visions would end up being, with slo-mo shots of athletes turning up in segment after segment. The best contributions came from Claude Lelouch and John Schlesinger, the former chronicling how athletes across disciplines reacted to losing (it has a long single-take shot of a boxer throwing the biggest hissy fit you’ve ever seen). Schlesinger’s segment, “The Longest”, could share a title with a film made by his compatriot Tony Richardson, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. By cutting together marathoner Ron Hill’s preparations in England with his actual run (in which he placed 6th), Schlesinger hints at the special heartbreak of sports in which one competes against oneself most of the time. It’s also the only segment that makes a reference to the killing of 11 Israeli athletes by the terror outfit Black September.

The new millennium ushered in a new era of Olympic auteurship. Prominent directors were hired not only to chronicle but also shape the Games. For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities put Zhang Yimou in charge of the opening ceremony. The ceremony was all one might have hoped for from the director of such ravishing films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Yimou created a visually overwhelming piece of live theatre, arranging large blocks of people in extraordinary patterns, like an industrial-scale Busby Berkeley.

Yet, in a surprising echo of Olympia and Riefenstahl, people’s interpretations of the proceedings differed widely. If many were vowed by the scale and imagination of the ceremony, others glimpsed signs of militarism, authoritarianism and communism. Though it offered a grudging word or two of praise, the New Yorker ended its appraisal on a sniffy note: “Nobody will ever surpass the mathematical majesty of that night in Beijing, and, in retrospect, that may be a good thing.” Four years later, after the shambolic opening of the London Games – like Beijing, conceptualized by a filmmaker, Danny Boyle – the same publication wrote: “Boyle’s living diorama, as specifically-drawn a world as Middle Earth or Pandora, was the opposite of Beijing’s vague corporate bombast.”

This year too, a filmmaker is on board as one of the creative directors for the opening: Fernando Meirelles, whose most celebrated film, City of God, shows a side of Rio that the organisers would probably not want attention called to. In an interview to The Daily Beast last year, Meirelles mentioned that their budget was slim compared to London’s, and that they’d have to work smarter. “Usually these openings are countries showing off: ‘This is who we are.’ Ours will be different. Ours will be a message for the world,” he said. Content versus form: a conundrum common to the worlds of cinema and sports.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

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