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Ah, the Olympics, a tradition as old and wondrous as Bob Costas, himself. Every four years since approximately 800 B.C., our finest athletes/most freakishly lithe or long-limbed teenagers are temporarily freed from their training facilities in order to come together in some barren place and compete in feats of strength in the hopes of bringing home the ultimate prize: A snide exposé on Gawker about how they smoked pot at a party that one time. The Olympics represent humanity at its finest, an opportunity for all of us to fall in love with the inspirational micro-narratives of perfect strangers, and maybe -- if you surf by CNBC at just the right time late one night -- see a Ping-Pong match that’s so fast and furious it ends with one of the players accidentally discovering the God particle with their backhand.
Anyway, for an event that so completely dominates the world’s collective imagination, it might seem as if the Olympics are strangely unrepresented in the movies. And that small clutch of films that do explicitly involve the games fall into two distinct categories: Bad, and Munich. Having said that, one thing that the cinema does very well, especially in the best and most important of movies, is to illustrate how the raw athleticism and human triumph of the Olympics aren’t confined to the spectacle of the Games themselves.
The basketball tournament in London this August might be exciting, but it’s hard to imagine how it could be half as memorable as Hoop Dreams. Think there’s a lot at stake during the archery events? Take a gander at the look on Toshiro Mifune’s face as he tries to dodge a blast of deadly arrows in Throne of Blood. Think those indoor cyclists who zip around that indoor wooden track are patently insane? I’m pretty sure that event was actually inspired by a Buñuel movie. There are amazing feats of athleticism worthy of inspiring a nation or at least one of those Morgan Freeman Visa commercials, but they go unheralded, woven into the tapestry of the greater film experience. I mean, everyone knows that the whole point of Knife in the Water was for Roman Polanski to show off the sailing prowess of his cast, but no; film fans the world over are too obsessed with his masterful shot selection to notice. It’s a shame, really, and it’s about time that someone write an exceptionally dumb article about it.
So let’s take a look at which Criterion films keep the Olympic spirit alive, and which countries do it best. Also, let’s just completely ignore Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, because writing about that would make way too much sense. Okay, let the games begin!
Bicycles are as old as the cinema itself. If that sounds like some flippant garbage I’d write, that’s because it’s some flippant garbage I wrote. But even Armond White is right twice a day (assuming he wrote 350 reviews that day), and it turns out that bicycles actually are roughly as old as the cinema itself -- the first chain-driven bicycle was introduced to market in 1885, a date that falls right in the sweet spot of when film was being pioneered by luminaries and Lumiéres, alike. Today, some 127 years later, the relationship between pedals and projectors is just as strong as ever, with 2012 recently seeing the release of a Dardenne brothers film about a kid with a bike (I’m struggling to remember the title).
Bronze Medal: RUSHMORE (USA) Max Fischer, an indefatigable multitasker, relied on his 10-speed bicycle to move between all of his various extracurricular activities, but in the wake of an unfortunate incident involving a waiter’s disguise and a giant crate of bees, Fischer’s sweet ride was repeatedly run over by a rival’s car. The disaster forced Fischer to move on to a new green cycle (complete with a badass backseat basket), but it just wasn’t ever the same.
Silver Medal: LATE SPRING (Japan) Noriko loves three things: Her bicycle, her father, and not being married. And while that sounds like the recipe for an especially unfortunate new chapter in the career of Lars von Trier, Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring endures as one of the most tender cinematic evocations of the tension between tradition and modernity. The rift between the two forces gently widens with each successive generation, and 27-year-old Noriko is forced to negotiate between them on her bicycle, feeling palpably free and untethered while speeding along the Japanese coast, even while a potential husband pedals beside her in an attempt to keep pace. It’s a beautiful scene, but it’s going to have to settle for the silver, because no one ever really wins in an Ozu film.
Gold Medal: THE BICYCLE THIEVES (Italy). Okay, so there isn’t really all that much cycling in this movie, but it sure ain’t for lack of trying. Vittorio De Sica’s classic indelibly follows a father and son around impoverished post-war Italy as they scramble to find a bicycle in order to be properly qualified for a new job. It’s about as funny as one of those Friedberg and Seltzer parodies, but if winning ultimately boils down to how badly you want it, The Bicycle Thieves gets the gold every time.
So far as I can tell, the whole point of diving is to jump from dizzying heights without making a splash, and to publicly display the sort of hairless, stone-cut bodies that make ordinary humans (read: film bloggers) feel like the Elephant Man. Terrific. Having said that, I think that diving is one of those Olympic events that film has one-upped in every conceivable way. Few things are as inherently cinematic as the sight of pretty people falling from high places -- from action sequences to tabloids, the intractable pull down to earth is one of the fundamental engines of the movie industry. And while I think Back to School’s “Triple Lindy” is the closest Hollywood has ever gotten to making a movie about diving, so many movies would never be possible without it.
Bronze Medal: WINGS OF DESIRE (Germany). Degree of difficulty alone would probably be enough to earn Damiel a spot on the podium. I mean, dude is giving up his wings and plummeting from his eternal position in the heavens all the way down to a divided Berlin. And he’s not doing it for a medal -- no, Damiel dives for love. His form leaves a lot to be desired, and his splash -- the dismally titled sequel Faraway, So Close! -- was kind of a mess, but there’s no denying that Damiel sure plunged with style.
Silver Medal: HEAD (USA) Head ends with the Monkees’ ultimate assertion of free will, as the members of the singular rock group effectively commit group suicide by leaping off an epically high bridge and into the waters far below. It’s a beautifully deranged moment, the Monkees tumbling to their doom in slow motion as the film’s theme (“Porpoise Song”) wistfully scores their descent. If only more movies ended this way (I’m looking at you, Rock of Ages).
Gold Medal: THE GAME (USA). There are risky dives, and then there are dives explicitly designed to end in sudden and gruesomely violent death. Michael Douglas’ swan dive off the top of a skyscraper at the end of David Fincher’s The Game comfortably qualifies as the latter. Nevertheless, he sure as hell sticks the landing. Unfortunately for Douglas, his dive ends in the only thing worse than death: A conversation with Sean Penn.
TRACK AND FIELD
Track and Field feels like the last vestige of Olympic roots -- there’s something uniquely primitive about a beefy, anonymous man twirling around and launching a discus at the sun. In addition to being uniquely primitive, it’s also spectacularly boring, which probably explains why the only popular movie ever made about pole vaulting is Magic Mike. Nevertheless, the events that comprise the track-and-field portion of the Olympics have popped up in several notable films.
Bronze: NANOOK OF THE NORTH (USA). Category - Javelin. “Harpooning” might be a more accurate description of how the titular Inuk hunter takes down the seals he needs to survive the harsh Arctic climate he calls home, but it’s all fake anyway. In fact, I read on the film’s Wikipedia page that Nanook was actually played by Mickey Rooney in an elaborate attempt to preemptively out-racist his performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Incidentally, I also wrote it on the film’s Wikipedia page, but hey... the Internet!
Silver: SEVEN SAMURAI (Japan) Category - Heptathlon. I was really proud of myself for busting out “Heptathlon,” which is a track-and-field contest comprised of seven different events. Then I learned that the heptathlon is exclusively for women, and Kurosawa’s seven samurai would all be disqualified. But whatever, those guys lose every time, anyway.
Gold: BROADCAST NEWS (USA). Category - Relay. Newsman Albert Brooks hurriedly edits a nightly report, pops the tape out of the deck, and passes it off to Joan Cusack, who has to sprint across the office and get the footage to the control room in time for its scheduled airing. It’s the most breathless relay sequence the movies have ever known, with only a cluttered hallway and some sweet synths, Broadcast News literalizes the desperate extremes to which American journalists must go in order to preserve the integrity of the Third Estate.
Okay, the day that “running” becomes an official Olympic event is the day that all of Idiocracy’s prophecies officially come true, but for the purposes of this post I’ll lump all of the events in which running is the primary action into a single category. There’s a lot of running in movies. In fact, there are probably more movies in which someone runs than there are movies in which no one runs. And now that I’ve practically redefined the very nature of film criticism, let’s get on with this:
Bronze: GODZILLA (Japan). Event: 3000m Steeplechase. There is a lot of good running in Godzilla (although I suppose “fleeing” might be the more accurate term). There’s also a lot of bad running in Godzilla (although I suppose “being stomped to death by the massive, prehistoric embodiment of Japan’s fears for a nuclear future” might be the more accurate term).
Silver: BAND OF OUTSIDERS / JULES ET JIM (France). Event: 100m Dash. The Olympics are all about countrymen putting aside their differences and coming together to shame as many foreigners as they can, and so it feels right for Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut to put aside the differences that ultimately destroyed their friendship and share a spot on the podium. Band of Outsiders earns its spot with the indelible scene in which Anna Karina and her two renegade boyfriends sprint through the Louvre in an attempt to stage the fastest recorded run from one end of the museum to the other. The running sequence in Jules et Jim is a lot shorter but no less iconic -- the titular friends race across a Parisian bridge, chasing behind a girl named Catherine whom neither one of them will ever really be able to catch. Suffice to say that if “driving” were an Olympic event, none of these folks would qualify.
Gold: THE NAKED PREY (USA) Event: Marathon. Here’s a movie almost entirely devoted to a high-stakes footrace between a colonial guide (Cornel Wilde) and the tribe of indigenous hunters chasing him across their native land, determined to “Give him a bad time” (for reference, the “bad times” they gave the guide’s friends involved being roasted on a spit and being clawed to death by all of the village’s women). Despite sounding like the subtitle for one of those direct-to-video American Pie releases, The Naked Prey is essentially a precursor to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, but with a smaller budget for makeup and anti-psychotics. Cornel Wilde actually qualified for the Olympics as a fencer in 1936, but quit the team prior to the games in favor of becoming an actor. No one knows precisely what motivated his decision, but scholars suggest it has something to do with the idea that Wilde decided that being paid large sums of money to become a celebrity sex symbol might be more fun than being paid no sums of money to let a bunch of masked men attempt to stab him in front of thousands of people.
Olympic swimming: Easy to film, dreadful to watch. Movie swimming: Hard to film, but often exhilarating to see. The inherent appeal of bodies in water has been integral to the cinema since at least Shark Night 3D, and probably even before that. But that’s enough film history for one day, let’s get on with it.
Bronze: SCIENCE IS FICTION: 23 FILMS BY JEAN PAINLEVE (France) Okay, so the swimming bodies in the films of Jean Painlevé don’t really belong to humans so much as they do seahorses and other assorted creatures of the deep, but if the Olympics committee were as lenient about this sticking point as I am, ratings would probably go through the roof.
Silver: FAT GIRL (France). Poor Anaïs. She’s awkward, she’s younger sister to a gorgeous social butterfly, and she’s got a severe diaeresis. Also, she’s fat. She’s not morbidly fat, but she’s pivotally fat -- the first sentence of the film’s Wikipedia synopsis reads: “Twelve-year-old Anaïs is fat.” That hurts. At one particularly endearing moment, Anaïs hops into a swimming pool and surrenders to her imagination. She pretends that the foundation of a diving board is a spurned male lover, giving the wooden plank a tender kiss and whispering: “Don’t be jealous, I didn’t really cheat on you” (because, you see, Anaïs had just been flirting with the pool’s metal stepladder). It’s a sweetly disconcerting moment, and an illuminating glimpse as to how Michael Phelps maintains his game during training.
Gold: L’ATALANTE (France) And it’s a clean sweep for France! Impressively, one of the cinema’s first examples of underwater photography remains among its most beautiful, as Jean Vigo dedicated a significant chunk of his tragically short career to the life aquatic (he made a short film about swimmer Jean Taris just for practice). L’Atalante, Vigo’s only feature, galvanizes around a deliriously romantic moment in which Jean, a strapping boatsman, leaps into the sea to rescue his new bride Juliette. With elegant double-exposure photography, Vigo breathlessly collapses the terrible beauty of young love into the frantic unease of losing it.
I believe it was Fritz Lang who once said that “If kung fu is sex, then gymnastics is masturbation.” Well, it was either Fritz Lang or me -- I get the two of us confused all the time. Either way, the great thing about cinematic gymnastics is that anyone can do it -- you don’t have to be a pubescent teenage girl with a burly foreign coach who looks like a Bond villain to nail a complex floor routine, you just have to fake it so real.
Bronze: LE CERCLE ROUGE (France). Category - Vault. Jean-Pierre Melville elevated the "heist gone wrong" movie into a genre all its own, the most epic example of which remains Le Cercle Rouge. I haven’t seen the 2012 Olympics yet (NBC apparently doesn’t think I’m important enough for advanced screeners), but I’ll guarantee that no one in London works a vault like Alain Delon and his gang of thieves.
Silver: THE RED SHOES (UK) Category - Rhythmic Gymnastics. Okay, so ballet is hardly the same thing as rhythmic gymnastics, but Moira Shearer needs to win something.
Gold: MODERN TIMES / THE GREAT DICTATOR / THE GOLD RUSH (USA). Category - Men’s All-Around. It doesn’t matter which Chaplin film you choose, each of his films in the Criterion Collection includes at least one amazing feat of comic agility. Whether you’re talking about the way he turns a factory into his personal pommel horse in Modern Times, or his rhythmic floor routine with an inflatable globe in The Great Dictator, or how the Little Tramp repurposes the edge of a cliff into the ultimate horizontal bar, Chaplin was -- in his own right -- as talented a gymnast as ever there was.
Only now am I starting to come to grips with the fact that there will never be a Criterion edition of Wimbledon.
Bronze: THE LAST EMPEROR (Italy). Emperor Pu Yi is so bad at tennis that, during a mixed-doubles game on the grounds of his palace, his underhand serve incites a military coup that forces him out of the country, profoundly impacting the history of modern China.
Silver: BELLE DE JOUR (Spain) Um, there are a few shots of Catherine Deneuve wearing a tennis outfit. And, uh, it’s strongly implied that she had just played a rousing, richly psychosexual match. ...Okay, whatever, it’s not my fault that Strangers on a Train and Annie Hall aren’t in the Criterion Collection.
Gold: THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (USA). Richie “Baumer” Tenenbaum is a great tennis player when he manages to keep his emotions under control / his shoes on. Unfortunately, that's exactly the kind of thing that tends to happen when you try and beat Ghandi.