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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Visions of Eight (1973)

In case you've not noticed (or have been visiting outer space over the past few days), the Olympics are taking place in London. Most of the population here appears to have gone bling-mad as we crow over each new gold medal, but it's not altogether surprising considering this country's investment in the Games and the boost that home crowd support can give athletes. I too have been watching with interest, cutting into the time that I would normally be watching films, although some of the disciplines have yet to entice me -- handball, archery, shooting to name a few.  Still there are enough other awe-inspiring sports on offer to keep me glued to the set.

With all the Olympic hype that has been on display here, I am rather surprised that the television programmers -- especially those not involved in the BBC's wall-to-wall coverage, have not siezed the opportunity to screen one of the many Olympic-themed films in their back catalogues.  It is of course too much to hope for the best and grand-daddy (or grandma) of them all, Leni Riefenstahl's "The Olympiad" (1936), to be shown, since she has become persona-non-grata because of her Hitler connection; but if truth be told, it is one of cinema's landmark films.  However other possibilities were similarly ignored.  I found a showing of the above movie, which I have seen previously a long, long time ago, on German television, and I set it to refresh my pretty favourable memory.

It is a compendium film with eight different directors of eight nationalities giving their impressions of various facets of the Munich 1972 Olympics -- the one that is best remembered now for the murder of eleven Israeli participants.  This is perhaps not the legacy for which the Munich city-fathers would wish to be remembered, but seven of the eight manage to ignore this event completely. The film opens with Russian Yuri Ozerov's "The Beginning", which gives a brief overview of the setting and the athletes, with tantalisingly brief glimpses of legend Olga Korbut and the oft-seen image of multi-medalled swimmer Mark Spitz. The next section by Swedish actress-turned-director Mai Zetterling is titled "The Strongest" and focuses on the heavyweight category of male weightlifters.  I too find their feats amazing -- this is well illustrated by a shot of five German soldiers straining together to move the fully-loaded apparatus off the floor -- but the contrast between then and now is really noticeable.  Then they were a bunch of burly, sweaty mammoths in their singlets and shorts, letting it all hang out as it were; now, in their one-piece body suits and belts they seem nearly svelte in comparison. 

Rapidly going through the next five contributions, Arthur Penn's "The Highest" (concentrating on the pole vault) and Kon Ichikawa's "The Fastest" (the short sprint runners) show the Riefenstahl legacy by deconstructing the athletes' movements into a slo-mo medley.  Never before or since has the 10-second 100 metres (even faster now) become a seemingly endless fifteen-minute ballet, using 34 cameras and an original 20,000 feet of film. (Incidentally Ichikawa also directed "Tokyo Olympiad" glorifying the 1964 games, another film not broadcast this year.) Michael Pfleghar (a German TV director unknown to me) contributes "The Women" with a flattering look at some of the beauteous ladies on display (mainly the Germans let it be said) and captures the grace of one of the Russian gymnasts -- not ironically Korbut with her perfect 10 scores. We then move to Milos Forman's "The Decathlon" which has little to do with this event, but which takes a jokey and pretty irreverent approach by intercutting the athletics with kitschy images of buxom bell-ringers, beefy yodellers, an oompah-pah band, and a full-fledged symphony orchestra pounding out their 'Ode to Joy'. Claude Lelouch ("A Man and a Woman") follows with "The Losers" focussing on the heartbreak of not winning, which occasionally became a display of bad-losing.  Once upon a time we're told, it was the taking part that mattered.  Try telling that to the various jingoistic nations today -- we know who you are!

It was left to John Schlesinger's "The Longest" to create the most meaningful and heartfelt section.  Ostensibly he was concentrating on an English marathon runner, showing his lonely ritual in training on empty English roads for a race that he would not ultimately win. When asked about the Israeli team, he appeared totally indifferent (or focussed one might allow), complaining that to him it only meant a 24-hour postponement of his Olympic marathon participation. The director then cuts to the closing ceremony with a quick shot of the jubilant Israeli team marching in at the opening and another of a Jewish group mourning, while Avery Brundage rabbits on about good will and brotherhood being the Olympic tradition.  He also includes a shot of a single African runner, still plodding Munich's streets in the pouring rain, some hours after the other athletes have finished, to finally arrive exhausted into the stadium.  This was a lovely image, reinforcing the original Olympic ideal that participation and doing one's best are the hallmarks of success.

While fascinating to revisit this film, I must admit that it is actually something of a parson's egg with no coherent overall flow or success.  Still it was an interesting time capsule between then and now.  Minor observations, once one gets over seventies' afros and whiskers, are the streamlining of team uniforms to the extent that most of the female athletes now seem to be racing in bikinis (!), the growing preponderance of tattoos, and the virtual disappearance of hairy armpits amongst all of the female participants and a surprising number of the male participants as well.  
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