Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Beyond ESPN: An Offbeat Look at the Sports Film

I was able to catch four documentaries at the YBCA's Beyond ESPN: An Offbeat Look at the Sports Film - "a varied assortment of films that don’t play by the rules when it comes to defining athleticism or the cinema of sports."

The documentaries were a mixed bag but overall I enjoyed myself.

Rare Films from The Baseball Hall of Fame
A Sunday in Hell; Danish with subtitles; (1976)
The French directed by William Klein; (1982)
Visions of Eight (1973)


Rare Films from The Baseball Hall of Fame was my favorite of the four. Not theatrically released, the "film" is a compilation of footage from the Baseball Hall of Fame. The digitally projected excerpts were compiled by David Filipi, the Curator of Film/Video at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Closer to a presentation, Filipi was in attendance and stopped the projection periodically to introduce the next set of clips. Filipi has programmed this series annually for the past six years at the Wexner Center. The program screened at the YBCA was the first one he screened at the Wexner.

The footage was entertaining and fascinating. Among the highlights were footage of Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Casey Stengel testifying before Congress with respect to signing underage prospects to long term contracts. Filipi likened Stengel to Grandpa Abe Simpson of the television series The Simpsons. Stengel's testimony meandered to cover Sunday Blue Laws and a company holiday for the Standard Oil Company. Mantle seemed a little dim witted while Williams towed the company line by supporting the signing of underage players.

There was also footage of a secret Jackie Robinson tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Diamond Demon, a short film (produced by MGM) about Jackie Price. Price was a career minor league baseball player who went on to become a "Clown Prince of Baseball." Diamond Demon showcased some of his talents such as hitting a baseball while hanging upside down, pitching two balls at once and shagging flyballs while driving a jeep.


The French was a fragmented documentary about the 1981 French Open tennis tournament. At times, I didn't know who won the match that was being shown. Klein abruptly cut away without showing the final score. What the film lacked in terms of a narrative, it made up for with hugely entertaining subjects. The cast of characters looked to the work of fiction but I guess it is standard for pro tennis players to be a motley bunch. Virginia Ruzici seemed lacking in self-confidence with respect to beating Chris Evert-Lloyd. Indeed, she lost to her in the Quarters. Evert-Lloyd & Ruzici were the two female players that received the most screen time. Hana Mandlikova eventully captured the title but she received very little screen time. Andrea Jaeger made the Semis but the only footage of her was for an impromptu birthday celebration on the grounds of Roland Garros. Martina Navratilova made the Quarters but there was only one brief scene of her in the women's locker room. Sylvia Hanika made the Finals before being defeated by Mandlikova and I don't recall any scenes with her before the final match.

The French focused on the men's draw. Perhaps because such volatile characters as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ilie Năstase were in mix. They delivered what you would expect. The film captured one of McEnroe's court outbursts and the crowds responding catcalls. McEnroe seemed simultaneously oblivious to the crowd and while still playing to the crowd during this temper tantrum (for receiving a warming for hitting balls into the net after a game).

The two characters that were most surprising were Björn Borg and Ivan Lendl (the two Finalists). Lendl came off as uptight and stangely shy. I guess "the robot" has feelings. Borg, who I think of as blandly congenial but with a laser focus and supremely ambitious, had the most telling moments in the film.

At the beginnng of the film, Borg participates in a photo shoot and exhibition match with children on the day before the French Open. Borg seems to be having a horrible time. I can guess that those kinds of events become irksome after awhile; especially on the day before you begin your quest for a sixth French Open title.

The final scene of the film is the best. After Borg defeated Lendl (it was Borg's final Grand Slam title), he tossed his racquet into the air. A ballboy retrieved the racquet from the ground. Borg goes on to celebrate without a second glance for his racquet. Later in the dressing room after Borg has showered and is preparing to leave, the ballboy approaches Borg and pleads to be allowed to keep the racquet as a memento. We have already seen that Borg takes a dozen identical looking racquets to the court when he plays and he doesn't seem to have any special affinity for that particular racquet. Rather than allow the boy to the keep the racquet (or offer him some other item in exchange for the racquet) or decline but explain why the racquet is important to him, Borg chickens out and tells the boy that if it is alright with his coach, then it is alright with him. As you can guess, the coach says no and the boys is left in near sobbing as the film ends.


Visions of Eight was directed by eight of the most celebrated directors of the early 1970's - Milos Forman, Kon Ichikawa, Claude LeLouch, Juri Ozerov, Arthur Penn, Michael Pfleghar, John Schlesinger & Mai Zetterling. Each director was given a carte blanche to film some aspect of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Surprisingly, only John Schlesinger makes passing reference to the "Munich Massacre" of the Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists (coincidentally, there were eight terrorists).

Each director's segment was self-contained. I arrived a few minutes late so I missed most of the first segment, "The Beginning" by Yuri Ozerov. That seemed to focus on the opening ceremonies which have always bored me but that's not the reason I was late. Of the other seven segments, the results were mixed. I am a budding fan of Ichikawa since seeing A Full-Up Train and Fires on the Plain. Ichikawa's segment was titled "The Fastest" and it was about the men's 100 meter dash. Shot in slow motion, Ichikawa introduced the segment by saying he shot 20,000 feet of film. That was part of the problem - heat after hear, runner after runner, we see each athlete's sprint slowed to the point where their skin & muscle ripple and their faces contort. Meant to represent the human condition, the segment seems derivative now. Even 1973, this slow-motion action would have been passé. Perhaps the human condition Ichikawa wanted to show us was monotony. I grew restless during the segment and went to the restroom. Similarly, Arthur Penn's treatment of the pole vaulters ("The Highest") used the same slow-motion photography to drain the excitement and energy from the event.

The segment I most enjoyed was "The Strongest" by Mai Zetterling. "The Strongest" covered the heavyweight or superheavyweight men's weightlifting event. I think they did the the clean and press. The best footage involved a weightlifter who was clearly unsure of his ability to perform the lift. He circles the barbell like a prizefighter, he yells at himself to get his adrenaline up and he approaches and retreats from the barbell numerous times. Eventually, he fails to make the lift.

A few other segments were noteworthy. I believe it was "The Decathalon" by Milos Forman that mixed in some German oompah music, men dancing in lederhosen and women dressed like the St. Pauli Girl with footage of the competition; very amusing. Another segment ("The Loser" by Claude Lelouch?) mixed in footage of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (was that Carl Orff conducting?) with shots of the reaction of the also rans. "The Women" by Michael Pfleghar was overtly sexist if judged by modern standards which made it all the more enjoyable.

Henry Mancini's original score added quite a bit for the final segment. The last segment on the closing ceremonies didn't have a credited director.


I would very much like to have seen Agua, a 2006 Argentinian narrative directed by Verónica Chen but I chose to go to the PFA that night.

Disgraced as a doper, thirty-four-year-old Goyo returns to the world of competitive swimming to mentor Chino. Their partnership yields a strange result in this film by Veronica Chen, a young force in Argentine cinema who brings a sensual regard of male physicality. The film’s competitive sequences move from skin-caressing observation to gorgeous or violent abstraction, before the suspense and extreme interiority of a swimmer’s experience give way to a recognition of surroundings.

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