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.

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