Friday, March 26, 2010

Remastering the Film: Ingmar Bergman

Some filmmakers, like Tavernier or Fellini, seem to arrive fully formed, their art at its zenith from the very beginning. Others, however, take several years, through trial and error, to arrive at their mature style. Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) had to make twelve films over seven years before finding his true voice in his first great film, Sawdust and Tinsel in 1953. That voice was developed as much in his work in Swedish theater during the long winter seasons when the light is not favorable to filmmaking as in his films. Bergman's writing was heavily influenced by Sweden's great dramaturg, August Strindberg. His films reflect several influences, not least of which were the great Swedish directors who came before him - Alf Sjöberg, who gave Bergman his first big break as a scriptwriter in 1944's Torment, and the man who is regarded as the father of Swedish film,Victor Sjöström, whom Bergman had a chance to direct in Wild Strawberries (1957).

Once he established himself as a formidable creative force in 1953, Bergman embarked on a string of films that were unprecedented both in their brilliance and versatility: the comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the medieval morality tale, The Seventh Seal (1957), the dark and deceptively comic The Magician (1958), and the stark retelling of a Nordic legend, The Virgin Spring (1960).

Then, at the height of his fame, for reasons that are still obscure, Bergman fled to a small island called Fårö (1) and only emerged to make rigidly narrow, self-styled "chamber films," the first of which, Through a Glass Darkly (1961), set the tone of several of his subsequent films. These films deserve serious reevaluation, since they were nearly all hailed as "masterpieces," a term that guarantees an end to discussion. Winter Light followed, which I regard as Bergman's last great film. The rest of his films of the '60s were called "postmodern" (always without the hyphen): The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, The Shame, The Passion of Anna. The critics who hailed them believed, essentially, that Bergman had emerged from the chilly isolation of the "trilogy" purged of things like linearity (not to mention clarity) and was a more advanced and cerebral artist, suddenly expert at a looser, abstract style.

I, for one, do not believe in Bergman's metamorphosis any more than I believed that most of what passed for abstract expressionism was art. Woody Allen called Bergman "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera." John Simon called him "cinema's Shakespeare" and compared his sudden plunge into obscurity in the '60s with the comparable shifts in style of Picasso and Stravinsky. I find Simon's comparisons far-fetched. There are film artists who made more fatal errors than Bergman (2), but too often his attempts at versatility were misfires. When Simon attacked Fellini for his supposedly discovering a nonexistent intellect, he should have been equally critical of Bergman. (3)

In the '70s, Bergman's work fell into a marked decline. Among other mistakes, he made what I consider his worst film, which was actually a TV mini-series, Scenes from a Marriage, which not only presents one of the most nightmarish views of matrimony ever conceived (3), but in the last episode, "In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World," (4) Bergman places his central couple, Johann and Marianne, divorced and re-married to other people, blissfully in bed together - therewith sowing the seeds of two more failed marriages. Bergman had five wives and several mistresses, so there is no need to speculate about his views about marriage, let alone fidelity. (5) The series was so widely praised, however, that it was shown in its entirety, in six episodes, on America's Public Broadcasting Service.

While I am quite prepared to call Bergman one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium, I do so critically, accepting his failures (which are numerous) as well as his triumphs. His long career proved how very difficult it is, even under the best conditions, to produce a great or even a good film. That he made as many as he did - as stingy as I am, I give him credit for six great films and at least as many good ones (6) - is a testament to his importance.

(1) Bergman's home on the island was recently sold. It was valued at €3-4m.
(2) Like Fellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, et al.
(3) Vernon Young called it "two blood-stained towels marked HIS and HERS."
(4) The title of Lina Wertmüller's only film in English was The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain.
(5) He defined relationships in a line from one of his early films, Prison: "Hell together is better than hell alone."
(6) The "good ones" include Waiting Women (1952), Summer with Monica (1953), A Lesson in Love (1954), Women's Dreams (1955).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tutto a Posto e Niente in Ordine (Everything in Place, Nothing in Order)

Seeing Kathryn Bigelow become the first woman to be voted Best Director by AMPAS last weekend led some critics to bring up the sad subject of the dearth of women directors, past and present. Whatever Bigelow's claim to the title of last year's best director, if I had to give my vote for the best woman director ever, my choice would be Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich-Job, or Lina Wertmüller for short. (1)

Her name, like the titles of her films, is like a treatise. She first gained notice as assistant to Fellini on 8 1/2, and enjoyed a brief but extraordinary creative burst in the '70s that resulted in four films that are superb by any but the most obtuse standards: Mimì metallurgico ferito nell'onore (The Seduction of Mimi-1972), Film d'amore e d'anarchia, ovvero 'stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza...' (Love and Anarchy-1973), Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto (Swept Away-1974)), and Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties-1975). The title of this post is from her 1974 film, released in the U.S. (stupidly) as All Screwed Up.

These four films are bristling with ideas - about men and women, about history, about politics - that are idiosyncratic as well as manifestly serious. Some critics, political naïfs, claimed her politics were "schematic" and her films like pamphlets. Wertmüller is, in fact, a far more interesting politically committed filmmaker than Ken Loach because her politics is a long way from being doctrinaire. Her best film, Seven Beauties, remains controversial, and was attacked for its appropriation of an otherwise untouchable subject, Nazi labor camps, in a serious and inventive examination of the lengths to which one not very likable or admirable man will go to survive. In his attack on the film, Bruno Bettelheim, eminent child psychologist and camp survivor, took offense at Wertmüller's supposed suggestion that surviving the camps required a betrayal of one's humanity.(2) Wertmüller's point, I think, was that her film is only about one man's betrayal of his own humanity. The burlesque manner of that betrayal - scraping together his last bits of libido to make love to a grotesquely obese and sadistic woman,(3) betrays Wertmüller's design and exposes her very impure protagonist as the monster that he knows he is.

But because her films were more interested in people than just women, Wertmüller was of no use to feminist critics, who accused her of reinforcing stereotypes. And because she so swiftly went into decline after answering the dreaded call of Hollywood, it was all the easier to downplay her importance. Her work lost much of its vitality and urgency in the '80s and she only regained commercial attention once with the uncharacteristically sentimental Ciao, Professore! (Io speriamo che me la cavo-1992). If nothing else, the pointless remake of Swept Away (2002), with an utterly unalluring Madonna and Adriano Giannini, son of Giancarlo (4) made the original seem all the more like a masterpiece.

(1) Wertmüller was actually the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, for Seven Beauties in 1976. Other women directors nominated since are Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, and Bigelow.
(2) "If ["Seven Beauties"] is to be taken for mere entertainment, I must state my disgust that the abomination of genocide and the tortures and degradations of the concentration camp are used as a special, uniquely macabre titillation to enhance its effectiveness. . . . I also believe that "Seven Beauties" is a somewhat uneasy, indirect, camouflaged—and therefore more dangerous, because more easily accepted and hence more effective—justification for accepting the world that produced concentration camps; it is a self-justification for those who readily accepted that world under these conditions and profited from it." Bettelheim, "Wertmüller, Lina 1928–" Bettelheim took his own life in a nursing home in 1990 by pulling a plastic bag over his head.
(3) I have to admit that Wertmüller goes a little over the top by making the commandant of Pasqualino's camp a woman (Shirley Stoler).
(4) Matt Damon and Paul Greenglass were on Charlie Rose last week and it was mentioned that their film partnership is comparable to "Leo and Marty." Never mind that since Martin Scorsese started working with Leo DiCaprio his work embarked on a commercial detour from which it may never return. But the comparison to "Matt and Paul," while ludicrous in itself, shows what an incredibly narrow frame of reference most contemporary critics are subject to, for whom any film older than their own measly lifetimes is considered prehistoric. What about Monica and Michelangelo? Or Liv and Ingmar? Or Giancarlo and Lina?

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Swimmer part two

This place has no name. . . . Nor does the lost swimmer even have a place, buoyed up as he is in an illimitable steep of fluid and, for all he knows, borne along by a current. In all directions is void, whether air or water, though busy with sunlight and spangles and small events. The sea itself is calm. He wishes there were a higher swell so he could more easily keep up the hope that his boat, even though not many yards away, remains hidden by conspiracies of wavelets. He knows exactly what it would be like to be in an airplane flying above where he is now. He knows the burnished pane of ocean with its frozen wrinkles crossed by the aircraft's shadow. He knows, too, how words like "millpond" only ever come into the mind when gazing disembodiedly out of a window at 20,000 feet. This leaves the swimmer with an echo from which to build a name, "Despond," for this locus in which he is adrift before he abandons it as hackneyed and unhelpful.

At last he works out that this place can have no name other than his own. Nothing if not isolate, he is himself an island. By mischance or gross carelessness he has become marooned on himself. This perception has a point in its favor. It is an island with room for only one castaway. In the almost impossible event of anybody else reaching its shores they would at least be coming as rescuers.

-Seven-Tenths: Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton-Paterson

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Less-than-terrible Beauty is Born

There is a frightening moment in the Marcel Ophüls documentary, A Sense of Loss (1972), made in the midst of the "troubles" in Northern Ireland, in which a dead IRA member is carried in a flag-draped coffin to his grave by masked men, surrounded by a throng of mourners. When a procession of "soldiers" walks past the camera, one of them, a fat young woman, carries on her ugly face a look of such hatred and rage that it moved John Simon to comment how the conflict could be fuelled for another thousand years by it.

Yeats claimed that the traditional "wearing of the green" that takes place every year wherever Irish people are gathered to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, creates its own "terrible beauty" because of the tragic history of Ireland. But lately that history has been the sentimental creation of people, mostly Republican Catholics, who have capitalized on the violence in Northern Ireland by romanticizing their cause and trying to tie it into the old struggle of Ireland against England. Despite the bloodshed, which has hijacked the history of Northern Ireland for generations, a momentous power-sharing agreement has been created which promises a peace for the country.

However imperfectly devised and implemented, the agreement is more than just another cease-fire or lull in the fighting that has gripped the country and the attention of the world for more than forty years. As a less than disinterested party myself, the realization that partisanship, the us against them attitude, solves nothing any more is by now terribly obvious. And even if I am not at all happy that one side, the Catholics, is being represented by Sinn Fein, a radical Marxist-Leninist group whose right hand is the blood-drenched IRA, at least some of their members (even Gerry Adams) have softened their views to such an extent that they can at least countenance the idea that co-existence with the Protestants is the only conceivable conclusion. That the accord has been brokered by both the British and Irish governments is another semi-miracle. What the accord means is examined here.

The longer that this peace settlement lasts, the more it makes me wonder what might have happened in Israel had the opposing parties arrived at a comparable understanding. Clearly, what has been averted in Northern Ireland for four decades is civil war, thanks to the military intervention of the British Army, which was always accused by the IRA of being an occupation force (fuelling the stupid "give Ireland back to the Irish" campaign).

The same kind of conflict - civil war - has been happening in Israel for roughly the same period in its history as the Irish "troubles", whether the ruling majority recognizes the war as a civil one or not. But co-existence between the Israelis and Palestinians is about as likely as the Second Coming. A two-state solution has been proposed, but by the time the Israelis go to the table to hammer out the details, they will probably have seized every acre of habitable real estate, leaving the Palestinians with bottom land in the Dead Sea.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Either Orr or...

America has always been luckier in its film critics than in its films. Harry Alan Potamkin, Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Robert Warshow, Dwight Macdonald - where were the brilliant American films on which these brilliant Americans could comment? The profoundly misleading auteur revisionism was still decades away when they were filmgoers, and the often surprising news that people like Leo McCarey and Raoul Walsh were, whether they knew it or not, "authors" of the films they were assigned to direct, was yet to be invented.

By the time I discovered film in the early '70s, there was still an unprecedented selection of commentators of the medium to choose from: Pauline Kael at The New Yorker, Vernon Young at The Hudson Review, John Coleman at New Statesman, Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice, John Simon at The New Leader, Charles Thomas Samuels at The American Scholar, and Stanley Kauffmann at The New Republic. I am saddened to observe that there will never again be such a variety of distinctive and intelligent voices talking about film all at once. Nearly forty years later, only Sarris, Simon, and Kauffmann are still around, although Simon gave up film criticism in 2001 and now only writes about theater. Andrew Sarris is hanging in there, at 81, like a fifty pound booger. He gave up criticism at The New York Observer last year, but teaches at Columbia University. And Stanley Kauffmann, who will be 94 next month, celebrated his 50th years at The New Republic in 2008.

Though Kauffmann was never my favorite film critic, he has always been one of the finest in English, and his writing can stand proudly beside volumes of Agee, Ferguson, Warshow, and Macdonald. Where he has sometimes floundered, with a few notable exceptions, has been in front of films from abroad. When the Englishman Vernon Young (who is my favorite film critic), reviewed Kauffmann's first volume of criticism, A World on Film (1966), the title of his piece was "Somewhat Less Than a World." Young pointed out that misjudging foreign films has always been a failing of American film critics, but he quickly asserted that Kauffmann was easily the most judicious critic of the American film scene, and a particularly insightful critic of the films of Antonioni.

Reading Kauffmann today is like going back, if only for a thousand words, to a time when film commentary was as serious and rewarding as the films themselves. Nobody seems to recall, for instance, that Dwight Macdonald was Esquire's film critic from 1960 to 1966 - or, indeed, that he was succeeded by Wilfrid Sheed. It is not simply that Esquire was a different kind of magazine then, or its readers any smarter. It was that there was a different level of engagement with film forty years ago.

At the bottom of every one of Kauffmann's columns, past and present, at The New Republic can be found the words "Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic." For the past two years, however, he has not been TNR's only film critic. Christopher Orr, a senior editor, has been given space online to review films - not the sort or films to attract Kauffmann's eye, which is kind of the point of Orr's column. Kauffmann is in the enviable position of only writing about what interests him. After fifty years of having to write a weekly column on matters at hand - whatever films were in theaters in any given week - Kauffmann is at last free to write exclusively about films that matter.

Monday, March 15, 2010

It's the Joy in Your Heart

When a person who, alone in his or her last moments of life, arrives at the decision that they shall be his last, no one has the right to take it away from him. He could be the most loved person in the world, but his last act is his secret. How is rarely in question. But why can never find an answer. That is why I felt sorry for David Carradine when, in 2009, his family tried to take his last act away from him. He was found hanging nude from a curtain cord in the closet of a Bangkok hotel - which is exactly as the first police report had it. A few days later, his death had somehow come as the result of "accidental asphyxiation" - that curious malady that only seems to strike the rich and famous.

Listening last week to Susannah McCorkle sing one of the most beautifully joyous songs ever written, Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Waters of March," only reminded me of how she had ended her own life in 2001. She was an excellent linguist and I paid close attention to her own subtle alterations of Jobim's English lyrics, which he had chosen to write himself. It is such an accumulation of things, seemingly unrelated, that climbs up to the affirmation of the river bank that "sings of the waters of March."

The manner of McCorkle's suicide was dramatic: she threw herself from the 16th floor balcony of her Manhattan apartment. The reasons given were depression and some recent personal disappointments. By any reasonable standard, she had "made it," as a jazz singer. But being a jazz singer was, in itself, an agreement of sorts to suffering. The old lie that jazz is popular music is especially hard on artists who simply want to be heard. When just three per cent of world CD sales are for jazz music (a statistic that I find breathtaking), making a living at it is precarious at best.

Here are the published lyrics by Jobim, with McCorkle's alterations, where they occur, in italics.

Waters of March

A stick, a stone,
It's the end of the road,
It's the rest of a stump,
It's a little alone

[It's feeling alone]

[It's the weight of your load]

It's a sliver of glass,
It is life, it's the sun,
It is night, it is death,
It's a trap, [It's a knife] it's a gun

The oak when it blooms, [A flower that blooms]
A fox in the brush,
A knot in the wood,
The song of a thrush

[The mystery of life
The steps in the hall
The sound of the wind
In the waterfall.]

The wood of the wind,
A cliff, a fall,
A scratch, a lump,
It is nothing at all

[It's the moon floating free
It's the curve of the slope
It's an egg, it's a bed,
It's a reason for hope.]

It's the wind blowing free,
It's the end of the slope,
It's a beam, it's a void,
It's a hunch, it's a hope

And the river bank talks [And the river bank sings]
of the waters of March,
It's the end of the strain, [It's the promise of Spring]
The joy in your heart

The foot, the ground,
The flesh and the bone,
The beat of the road,
A slingshot's stone

A fish, a flash,
A silvery glow,
A fight, a bet,
The range of a bow

The bed of the well,
The end of the line,
The dismay in the face,
It's a loss, it's a find

A spear, a spike,
A point, [A stake] a nail,
A drip, a drop,
The end of the tale

[The dew of a leaf
in the morning light]
A truckload of bricks
in the soft morning light,
The shot of a gun
in the dead of the night

A mile, a must,
A thrust, [A breast] a bump,
[It's the will to survive
It's a jolt, it's a jump]
It's a girl, it's a rhyme,
It's a cold, it's the mumps

The plan of the house, [Blueprint of a house]
The body in bed,
And the car that got stuck, [A car stuck in the mud]
It's the mud, it's the mud

[A fish, a flash,
A wish, a wing,
It's a hawk, it's a dove,
It's the promise of Spring]
Afloat, adrift,
A flight, a wing,
A hawk, a quail,
The promise of spring

And the riverbank talks [And the river bank sings]
of the waters of March,
It's the promise of life
It's the joy in your heart

A stick, a stone,
It's the end of the road
It's the rest of a stump, [It's the stump of a tree]
It's a little alone [It's a frog, it's a toad]

[A sigh, a breath,
A walk, a run,
A life, a death,
the rain, the sun]
A snake, a stick,
It is John, it is Joe,
It's a thorn in your hand
and a cut in your toe

A point, a grain,
A bee, a bite,
A blink, a buzzard,
A sudden stroke of night

A pin, a needle,
A sting, a pain,
A snail, a riddle,
A wasp, a stain

A pass in the mountains,
A horse and a mule,
In the distance the shelves
rode three shadows of blue

And the riverbank talks [And the river bank sings]
of the waters of March,
It's the promise of life
in your heart, in your heart

A stick, a stone,
The end of the road,
The rest of a stump, [It's the stump of a tree]
A lonesome road [It's the weight of your load]

A sliver of glass,
A life, the sun,
A knife, [It's night] a death,
The end of the run

And the riverbank talks [And the river bank sings]
of the waters of March,
It's the end of all strain, [It's the end of despair]
It's the joy in your heart.

McCorkle confessed that "Waters of March" was her favorite song. She recorded it on her 1990 album, Sabia. Jobim first recorded it in 1973. March, in Rio, is the beginning of Autumn rather than Spring, and it heralds the start of the rainy season, the sunny days over and gone. Of the song's many recordings, the one that best captures the playfulness of the Portuguese lyrics features a duet with Jobim and Elis Regina. McCorkle's recording, with some of her album covers and some oddly interpolated imagery, can be found here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Swimmer part one

I am lost. . . . These are the words the swimmer addresses in panic to the sunny universe into which he emerges, blowing water, disoriented. Ten minutes ago, perhaps twenty, he had set some fishing lines and slipped over the side of his tiny craft - a wooden insect with two bamboo outriggers - with a cord tying its prow to his ankle. He had been lying face down in the ocean, sun on his back, staring through the first thirty of a thousand meters of water. In the tropics these upper waters are flooded with light. Bright spicules drift past his eyes, crimson and electric blue, the jeweled phytoplankton streaming about the globe performing infinitesimal acts of chemistry which, much multiplied, succor all earthly life. By swimming down a couple of dozen feet he can look up and view other creatures from below: a shoal of garfish (whose bones are bright green) so high up their backs graze the rumpled mirror of air, the occasional flying fish breaking out and vanishing. The swimmer reflects on this mirror, imagining the sky weighing down on the sea and the sea holding up the atmosphere, curious about what exactly can be happening at the interface. If it were possible to magnify the activity, surely a buzzing skin of molecules would be revealed? Water molecules and air molecules so intermixed and saturated with atoms in common it would be undecidable which medium they constituted. At what point did these milling particles become water? The swimmer loses himself in this quantum pun, in his speculations about boundaries, then suddenly an awareness breaks in that something is missing. There is a steady tug at his ankle, but too light. The long cord trails downward, still firmly knotted to one foot. It is the boat which has gone.

His first act of panic is to spin in the water trying to stand up in it: once, twice, three times, quartering a featureless horizon. Nothing. He is anchored by twenty feet of thin abaca hemp to the ocean. His masked face rams back through the surface as if by a miracle of misplacement he might discover the boat floating at ease in a fourth dimension some fathoms below. Nothing. The cord hangs down like the corals called sea whips, slightly kinked, whiskers of fiber standing out clear in this awesome lens right to the bobble of the knot in its end. The word this knot transmits through the water is "adrift."

The swimmer jerks his head up into the air again. Everything is plain. It is not possible, yet the boat has gone. I am lost. Panicked, he pants and spins, boatless, landless, and with the visceral ache of pure fear at what he has abruptly become: all alone and floating in the Pacific Ocean. Reason attempts to be reasonable. How far away could a boat possibly drift on a windless day? Also, eye level is barely six inches above sea level; a boat whose freeboard is little more than three times that could easily be hidden by the least swell. It is no doubt bobbing in and out of visibility even as he happens to scan the wrong horizon. . . . In any case, something altogether calmer is taking over: a lassitude, a fatalism whose roots reach back not to the beginning of his own life but, like the rope on his ankle, down into the sea itself. The twisted fibers, like ancient strands of DNA, connect him with vanished deeps, to primordial oceans lying in different beds. If he is lost now it is because he was already lost before ever setting foot in a boat, before infancy itself. He has no proper existence at all, being only a tiny hole in the water shaped like the lower two thirds of a man. There is no way the tons of ocean can be held apart and prevented from filling the mold.

Yet it is not possible to give up, to go within minutes from being fit and happily occupied to renouncing life as if fatally injured. Fear returns in cycles. Looking around the liquid wastes beneath a brilliant sky he is set upon at intervals by the adrenal thought: This cannot be happening to me. . . . But it is. Then for a little while it is not; and in between assessing his chances of death by drowning, shark attack or exposure, into the swimmer's coordinates, he sees his own head occupying a fixed place. He pictures it sticking out of that expanse of curved blue ocean, a little round ball burnished with sun like the brass knob of a school globe. In his moment of loss he becomes the pivotal point about which the entire Earth turns.

(To be continued.)

James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds

Friday, March 5, 2010

The World's Full of 'Em

"Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost, and will never lose, a war. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. -George S. Patton

"Only one thing matters in life: learning to be the loser." -E.M. Cioran

In the '70s I met a phlegmatic old man who, without provocation, proudly showed me an Olympic medal - bronze - that he had won for rowing at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. It brought home to me how important the Olympics are for athletes and the effect that competing in one, and bringing home a medal, has on them.

My feelings about athletes are something less than ambivalent. Like everyone else, I watched how they were coddled at school, how they were absent from class so much of the time because of some important "practice", how they enjoyed absolute popularity with girls and even the teachers, how they were given free passes to college for their ability to run, throw, catch, or hit. And I have watched how those skills made some of them unimaginably rich and famous.

Despite this cultural slavering, looking for heroes among athletes is a dubious pursuit. The 1969 American film, Downhill Racer, confronts this idea directly. I must have seen it on TV a few years after its theatrical release, which was foreshortened because of an uncomprehending audience response. It was too subtle - its hero was a handsome jerk (Robert Redford) who was good on skis but - to use the harshest possible popular estimation - unsympathetic. The film made some points about winning that were, at the height of the war in Vietnam, not very encouraging and even a little un-American.(1) But it got some good critical notices and developed a following, which succeeded in preventing it from being forgotten - which is one of the more thankless duties of a critic. (2) Now it is out on DVD (aka Blu-Ray) in a shimmering new print from Criterion.

This was the shamefully underrated Michael Ritchie's first theatrical film. He followed it with the excellent Prime Cut (Lee Marvin at his tough guy best), The Candidate, which was (and is) prophetic about all-consuming political ambition, and Smile, which was attacked on its release by brainless critics who saw it as unfair (and why not?). Unfortunately, after the success of The Bad News Bears and Semi-Tough, he was pigeonholed by producers as a director of comedies and spent the rest of his career in a commercial wilderness before dying of prostate cancer at 62 in 2001.

Downhill Racer follows skier David Chappelett through his acceptance to the U.S. Ski Team in mid-season, his clashes with the head coach (played by Gene Hackman before he was Popeye Doyle), his fling with a beautiful Austrian girl (the beautiful Swedish girl Camilla Sparv), his return home for the off-season, and his eventual winning of a gold medal in the Winter Olympic Games.

The tone of the home town scenes, shot in the mountains west of Denver, Colorado, is perfect in its sense of vacancy. They reminded me of Dick Cavett's line, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen the farm?" They offer ample explanation for Chappelett's drive to excel. He has a chilly relationship with his old father, with whom he exchanges perfunctory dialogue. But when he asks his son why he wants to waste so much time on skiing, David replies, "I'll be famous. I'll be a champion." "The world's full of 'em," the old man replies.

Chapellett's coach sees his potential and tries valiantly to instill a trace of sportsmanship in him. His teammates hate him because they have to work so hard at something that comes naturally to him. The cinematography for Downhill Racer is by Brian Probyn, who also worked on Terrence Malick's splendid Badlands, and the skiing scenes are exhilarating to watch - particularly on the big screen. Robert Redford seemed to have been poured into the role of David Chappelett, which is rumored to have been modeled on "Spider" Sabich (you remember - the one who was murdered - er, accidentally shot to death - by Andy Williams' ex-wife Claudine Longet) or Billy Kidd.

But what the film exposes most forcefully is the unpleasant truth about sports in general: that winning is all that matters, that no amount of "sportsmanship" can make up for failure, that rivalry among athletes - and among nations - is only as friendly as the stakes involved, particularly when things like honor and pride get mixed up in the contest. And since there are a lot fewer of them, being a good winner - which has nothing to do with humility - is a lot harder than being a good loser.

(1) John Simon praised the film Patton for its brazen celebration of values that Americans were calling into question when it was released in the middle of the war in Vietnam.
(2) "Among the critic's obligations is the salvaging of neglected films before they go softly into that dark night." -Vernon Young.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Bitter Pill

Aside from being a founding member of the British comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe and a celebrated opera and theater director, Jonathan Miller (b. 1934) is a trained physician. He is also one of the most vocal advocates of Britain's National Health program, and he caused some controversy* in the 1970s by speaking contemptuously of "Quisling" physicians defecting to the U.S. and spreading lies about the British system and by arguing that the word health should have been included among the "unalienable rights," "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. In other words, the health of Americans should be guaranteed by the government.

In more ways than one, Miller was way ahead of his time. Three decades later, the U.S. government is apparently dealing (while trying very hard not to deal) with the issue of health care reform. Whether they deal with it now or later, the issue is not going away. But it can never succeed in a country in which socialized sounds suspiciously like socialist, and where taxpayers would rather pay through the nose to insurance companies for their health care than pay higher taxes - which is the only thing that would make it possible. If the current attempts to restart the legislative process come to nothing, as polls suggest most Americans want, the next time the bitter pill of health care reform is addressed, it may not be administered orally.

* True to form, in 1996, Miller expressed his view to the Sunday Express newspaper that chronic fatigue syndrome, was "the absolutely most fashionable disease", dismissing it as a "Chronic Fictitious Sickness".