' Cinema Romantico

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: Torrid Zone (1940)

It’s not critical tradition (law) to begin a review by digressing on the movie’s poster but hey, we here at Cinema Romantico serve our Old Fashioned any way we damn please. And this poster amuses and confounds me because to look at it would leave you with an entirely wrongheaded impression of what this 1940 William Keighley movie might be. There’s James Cagney, strumming a guitar, eyes closed, like he’s Captain Corelli and that’s his mandolin, and Ann Sheridan on his shoulder, looking like the rosy-cheeked girl next door, cuddling up to her beau, just hoping he’ll take her down to the soda fountain for a chocolate malt. And the grinning Pat O’Brien? Well, maybe he’s the soda fountain proprietor who just can’t get over how happy he is to see these two young kids in love, or the dad of the girl next door just overwhelmed with good tidings for these two lovebirds. But then you’d watch the movie and realize that O’Brien never smiles, Ann Sheridan ain’t so sweet and Jim Cagney never, not once, picks up a guitar. Marketing, man, that crap will mess with your mind.

The odd misdirection of this advertisement, however, is apropos of the film itself, one that seems dead set on making O’Brien the star before he suddenly hands the starring role to Cagney, while Sheridan, riffing on Jean Harlow in “Red Dust”, operates always between the two. O’Brien is Steve Case, a humorless fruit company magnate who oversees a banana plantation down Central America way. His foreman is Nick Butler (Cagney), who decides to quit for a straitlaced job in Chicago, only to be lured back by a big bonus for a few weeks work to deal with a persnickety revolutionary, Rosario (George Tobias), who has just escaped execution. Nick agrees, but takes Sheridan’s Lee Donnelly along with him, who Steve has just ordered to leave the Torrid Zone and never come back if for no other reason than a mischievous twinkle in her eye which lets you know that she is always in the mood to some start shit. Eventually, after getting cheated by Lee at cards, Nick tries to send her away too, though she still refuses to budge, lurking around the edges, and calling him out on his dalliance with a married woman.

This is, of course, literally a banana republic, with Steve’s company in charge, displacing locals from their native land, a cause that is taken up by Rosario, who is less a hardened revolutionary than a romantic, the kind dreamed up on the Hollywood backlot rather than culled from the annals of actual history. Still, even if “Torrid Zone” might not be that sympathetic to Rosario’s actual cause, it remains sympathetic to him, thankfully refusing to turn him into a cartoon villain. There is an early scene, in fact, when Lee and Rosario are locked up behind bars in the same place and become fast friends. There is a reason for this friendship and it is their mutual interest in mixing things up.

That is the foremost motivation in “Torrid Zone” – causing trouble. This Torrid Zone is filled with troublemakers. Everyone wants trouble; everyone seeks trouble; everyone finds trouble. This is why Steve Case has to be moved out of the picture midway through, until he re-surfaces at the end to get his, because he is the one character here truly intent on preventing trouble in order to maintain his operation. Oh, Nick might act like he wants to keep things on the straight and narrow, but we know that’s a lie as well as Lee does. That’s why she keeps poking and prodding him, and that’s why we know he will never take that job in Chicago, which he doesn’t. He belongs in the Torrid Zone. They all do.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Freedom's Fury

"Water polo," says American swimmer Mark Spitz, narrator of the 2006 documentary "Freedom's Fury", "is a punishing sport, combining violence and finesse, endurance and strategy." It is also, he goes on to note, a sport where so much takes place just out of sight, below the water's surface, where players kick, claw, scratch, and do God knows what else, all to get the upper hand. Those dueling notions, what is so obvious at first and what is not, are also at the heart of the Olympics, where sport takes center stage even as politics forever lurk just out of sight, and sometimes eclipse the original athletic-based intent. Never was that more apparent than in the game that director Colin Keith Gray's film chronicles - the semi-final water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne.

"Freedom's Fury" may start in the pool but it quickly moves on land, summarizing with reams of archival footage how during WWII the Nazi forces were driven out of Hungary by the Soviet Union, who subsequently, as one of the doc's myriad talking heads puts it, "forgot to leave." Instead the Soviets implemented their own government, politically and culturally repressing the Hungarians in the process. Athletics, as is explained, became one of the very few outlets Hungarians had, and there was no sport at which Hungary excelled more than water polo. How, exactly, a landlocked country like Hungary came to be a world power in a pool-set sport is only vaguely explained, disappointingly limited to the broadest of analysis and purple commentary like "It was in our blood." Still, it makes clear that Hungary achieved great success at the game because of forward-thinking training regimens and in-game strategy.

They were so good, in fact, that the Soviet Union, a place that, as David Maraniss noted in his book "Rome 1960", used "sports as propaganda to prove the superiority of the socialist system," sent its water polo team to Hungary to learn from the best and therefore exploit the best's  which made the 1956 match something of a mentor vs. protégé affair, which all alone would have upped the dramatic stakes, except that abundant extra and real world drama too hold when, in the months just ahead of the Melbourne Olympics, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 erupted.

The entire documentary is building toward the clash in the pool, of course, a clash that Hungary won 4-0. The focus, however, is not so much on the specifics of how the game was won but the one image that made the game famous – that is, Hungary’s Ervin Zador, after being sucker punched by an opposing player, opening a gash in his eye that bled profusely and into the pool. This indelible black & white photo provided the game an eternal moniker – The Blood In The Water Match. It’s funny, though, because the Hungary players interviewed actually somewhat dismiss the violence of the moment, labeling it as the sort of thing the sport, in any circumstance, fuels, and that the media took the breathtaking photo and ran with what they perceived it symbolized. It’s an interesting moment, a documentary purporting to be about this event, essentially muting the meaning of the event.

Indeed, despite ostensibly being the doc’s crux, the match doesn’t feel as important as how the movie concludes, when we see the two teams re-united many years later, in the aftermath of the Iron Curtain coming down and Hungary gaining independence. This heartfelt meeting, however, also betrays the lack of a true Russian voice throughout the film. The closest we get is Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet premiere Nikita, whose smile as he speaks seems to betray almost a kind of embarrassment That the documentary is slanted toward Hungary is no surprise and not wrong, but the conciliatory conclusion would have been enhanced from honest voices on the other side, about what they felt back then and how they feel now. Their meeting does not seem to suggest that what’s past is past, but that there is still something valuable in discussing that past, looking it in the eye, and then moving forward. Seeing this conclusion taken in conjunction with all that came before reminded me of how the invaluable Louisa Thomas closed her piece in The New Yorker about the recent Wimbledon finale between American Serena Williams and German Angelique Kerber: "We sometimes project our problems onto sports. But sports can also be, in some small but real ways, where we start to work them out."

Monday, August 22, 2016

T-Rex: Her Fight For Gold

T-Rex of the title of Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper’s documentary is the pugilistic nickname for Flint, Michigan’s Claressa Shields, who at the London Olympics, at the mere age of 17, became the first American woman to win Gold in women’s boxing, which made its debut at those same games. It might seem like a spoiler to reveal in the opening paragraph that she wins Gold since, hey, isn’t that what this documentary is all about? “Her Fight For Gold”? But it’s not really a spoiler, not even if you somehow avoided all sports press clippings in that last 4 years. And it’s not that the movie establishes straight up front that she wins, because it doesn’t. But the doc does place the match directly in the middle, building toward it and then pivoting off of it, because “T-Rex” seeks not simply to capture a Gold Medal winning moment. It seeks to capture how the lives of these athletes that consume us for a fortnight go on before the Games and go on after the Games. Claressa is 19. She’s a young woman. She’s Gold Medalist but damn she’s got a lot of life left.

It would have been so easy for this documentary to devolve into a feature length NBC Olympics puff piece. I don’t disagree with those pieces, but I disagree with their presentation, the way in which they transform every single athlete’s life and subsequent event into a fairytale. Claressa Shields winning Gold was not a fairytale. She was a skilled boxer, the best in the world, and she proved it. And though she had to overcome obstacles in life to get there, “T-Rex” never sentimentalizes this journey, balancing out lyrical shots of falling snow and shadow boxing with frames of the harsher side of life. At one point, they Canepari and Cooper fill the frame with the Flint, Michigan water tower and just let it sit there for a few seconds, letting it sink in that we know what’s coming even if they don’t, as if there is always something else to contend with where Claressa comes from.

Her parents are divorced, and while we don’t spend much time with them, we spend enough to get the gist, like a wrenching scene when Claressa’s sister stands on the sidewalk outside their house and winds up in an ominous verbal altercation with her mother’s current boyfriend. It’s short-lived, but it feels ominous. You know this is the norm. Claressa, meanwhile, winds up living with her coach, Jason Crutchfield, a former boxer. He had to retire and take a regular job, and he admits on camera to every coach’s yearning to tutor a champion, yet he never ever comes across as someone molding his charge in his image. He comes across as matter-of-fact in coaching as he does in parenting, equally making demands that Claressa might not like, but that he genuinely feels are best for her. This includes a boyfriend, who doubles as her sparring partner, who Jason doesn’t want her to see because he feels it affects the push & pull of his gym. That this never quite gets resolved feels true to the spirit of the film, where a life’s journey winds and weaves, and nothing is ever quite settled in stone.

When Claressa becomes an Olympian, she is forced to leave Jason behind, figuratively, because the coaches are obligated to be official appointees by Team USA. Still, he’s there, in the stands, and afterwards, giving her, the movie makes it seem, as many pointers, if not more, and if not more wise, than those of her “official” coaches. Not that Claressa or “T-Rex” mine too much drama out of this. The drama is in the ring, where the soundtrack, restrained but sharp, helps to wring real theater even when you know the result, allowing you disappear into the fight, as if it’s happening in real time. The climactic match, however, they handle a little differently, content in the advanced knowledge of her victory, rendering it as coronation rather than will she or won’t she? And when she does, it is the very genuine joy practically emanating from her visage, and the way she ecstatically bounces on the podium, that gets to you. Oh dear me, it’s hard not to believe in the Olympic Movement in those moments.

What follows afterwards isn’t a fall so much as the way in which the cloud of normalcy just sort of re-settles over Claressa. There is an indelible shot of her sitting on the couch, the Gold Medal in her lap, which evokes the sensation of “Well, what do I do with this thing now?” She yearns for endorsements, but they are not forthcoming. In one scene she and Jason meet with members of USA Boxing and they tell her to stop telling the press she wants to beat people up. She agrees, but reluctantly, and the look on her face, her eyes tilted toward the floor, isn’t a pout but a kind of WTF? Even so, important milestones beckon, like prom and graduation. And in these moments a paradox emerges.

In the hard won if healthy state of mind she displays, it is hard not to feel that true fame and fortune not finding her has allowed for that attitude. At the same time, when you see her continuing struggles, when you see her taking her mom to pay a bill at a collection agency, you cannot help but want fame and fortune for her more than anything.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Care Bears on Fire

There was a moment during the United States Women’s Volleyball Team’s tense semi-final match with Serbia when coach Karch Kiraly, a legend of indoor and outdoor volleyball, called timeout. His team gathered around him. For a moment, the NBC announcers went silent and we heard Kiraly unfiltered. He told his team they were a family. He explained that this familial structure they had built was specifically for moments like this, to combat adversity. They need only rely on one another to do what they needed to do. If another coach in another sport at another time had spoken those words, I might have dismissed it as hooey. But by Thursday, after watching every single one of their games in Rio, I’d seen enough of this team to know it was true.

The Olympics are that much more fun when you have a team. You pick a team, whatever the sport, whatever the country, and you temporarily transfer all the emotionalism reserved for your official team and make this Olympic team your team for a fortnight instead. Sometimes you choose your team in advance, like I did with the U.S. Men’s Water Polo squadron of 2012. Sometimes you choose your team on a whim, like I did with the Swiss Women’s Curling Team in 2014. This year I picked my team ahead of time. This year I picked the United States Women’s Volleyball Team. And though they were referred to, by custom, as Team USA, I naturally decided that was too staid and unbecoming of a team so spectacularly righteous, and thus re-imagined their moniker as The Care Bears on Fire.

The Americans might not have seemed at first glance to possess as much volley balling verve as, say, the flair-full Brazilians, especially given how much Kiraly and the NBC announcers, Paul Sunderland and Kevin Barnett, referred to the American “system”. Somehow the term “system” just makes them feel more American, like Nick Saban and his monstrously unexciting sounding “process”, even if so many other volleyball teams have their own systems. But there is some truth to the tactical sameness of their “system.” They forbade, as Sunderland and Barnett repeatedly pointed out, any kind of riotous jump serving because it wasn’t as efficient. And while other teams could occasionally become dependent upon individual brilliance, setting a great player and simply letting her go get it, the United States stuck to the belief that systemic adherence would yield rich dividends.

Not that the Americans were rigid automatons. Look, I’m a Sports Emotionalist, first and foremost, and if The Care Bears on Fire just played white collar volleyball I would have bailed match one for Puerto Rico and its resplendent ABA-ish uniforms. In fact, Barnett explained that in the Olympic run-up he spoke with the mighty Foluke Akinradewo who said she loved this team because it let her act like “a big ol’ weirdo.” “What’s a big ol’ weirdo look like?” Barnett said he asked. “A lot of dancing,” she replied, “off rhythm.” She may as well have been speaking for the whole team; The Care Bears on Fire loved to dance.

While the six players competed on the court, the reserves, always at standing and at the ready if called upon, had choreographed dances for each individual player that were busted out in the wake of any point or great play. We didn’t see enough dancing, frankly. I wanted an iso-cam on the dancers. Kelsey Robinson became my favorite player not simply because she’s an ex-Cornhusker, and not simply because she was The Microwave, by which I mean she channeled Vinnie Johnson in instantly effecting results off the bench, and not simply because once when she made some dig that defied the eye the camera caught her mouthing “wow” to herself as if she didn’t even believe it, but because the dance in her honor was my favorite. It was sort of this little shoop shoop ba-doop, once to the right, once to the left. When Kelsey subbed in against China last Sunday, my favorite match The Care Bears played, and never came back out because she took over, it’s possible I tried out the shoop shoop ba-doop a couple times in my living room, though I’d never admit it.

The Care Bears on Fire were founts of this sort of joy. Any time a player substituted in or out there was an exchange of high fives between the whole team. Before every point was played there was a round of low fives, a constant “let’s get ’em.” And at the end of each point, there was either a celebration, often rendered in striking slow motion, giving full weight to the gigantic emotions splayed across the players’ faces, if they won. And if they lost, there was a huddle, typically packed with just as many smiles as a point won, and even occasional laughs that seemed to imply something along the lines of a jocular “can you believe I just f***ed that up?!”. This was particularly crucial. There was an incredible capacity for well-adjusted, even fun-loving, resolve. A point lost was gone, though not necessarily forgotten because it might have suggested a space for strategic correction, and now it was time to play the next point. In America, where so many of our sports are ensconced with unmerciful whining about everything that has already happened, this “the next point is a new point mentality” was a breath of fresh air.

That mentality had benefited them throughout the tournament, through which they had traversed with a perfect record of 6-0, and it seemed extra critical in the hella dramatic fifth set in the semi-final against Serbia, which we return to now, after The Care Bears on Fire had gone up by one set, only to lose Akinradewo to injury and struggle, going down 2 sets to 1, only to rally to even it at 2 sets all, and then take the lead in the fifth set, three precious points away from the Gold Medal match, when Serbia made a run and Kiraly called timeout and told them they were family.

In the Sports Movie, that’s enough. The Care Bears on Fire would go out and win. Instead, they kinda cracked up. They lost. And they took it hard. They shed some tears. And I liked that they shed tears because it simply reinforced the realness of the emotion that was so prominently on display throughout Rio. Forty eight hours later they played the Netherlands for Bronze and won. I was not surprised. After all, that was why they built their familial structure, to combat this kind of adversity. Next point, new point. Now, let’s dance.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Faster Higher Stronger

At the end of the Men’s Decathlon, the mettle-testing two-day event spanning ten different events of track and field, American world recorder and defending Olympic champion Ashton Eaton entered the final challenge, the 1,500 meters, with France’s Kévin Mayer unexpectedly snapping at his heels. To win Gold, Mayer had to outrun Eaton by seven seconds in their four laps of the track. As the race commenced, Eaton did as expected, locking into place directly behind Mayer so that if the Frenchman made a push to try and garner seven seconds distance, Eaton could respond. Mayer, however, did not have the legs to go for broke, and so Eaton would have done fine to remain just off his competitor’s shoulder, stay within seven seconds, pragmatically get the job done. But then, with roughly 300 meters left, and no need whatsoever to push it, Eaton pushed it anyway, going up a gear, passing Mayer, surging forward, around the final turn and down the stretch. Eaton did not win the race itself, but he finished ahead of Mayer, which seemed to be his intent. Afterwards, in the obligatory out-of-breath post-race interview, when asked where he found the strength, or some such, to keep going, he name-checked his competitors and his wife and the whole United States (really!), and maybe he meant that, but to me he looked less driven by Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, etc., than by an intrinsic embodiment of Citius Altius Fortius.

Citius Altius Fortius was the jejune sounding ideal proposed by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, as the sporting celebration’s motto, the one that dictates Faster Higher Stronger. Not, as Donald Sutherland so memorably explained in “Without Limits”, being “faster, higher and stronger than who you're competing against... Just faster...higher...stronger.” That idea can be hard sometimes to wrap our heads around in a shouty society where everyone wants to pit someone against someone else, and where you are either a winner or a loser. In that moment, however, Eaton lived it.

Last Friday, Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia shattered the 10,000 meter world record that had stood since 1993. But what I found just as compelling was the plight of American Molly Huddle. I had high hopes she could land on the podium; a lot of people had high hopes she could land on the podium; she had high hopes she could land on the podium. But in the race’s early stages, the pace was positively furious. The giant pack of runners got strung out quick, and Huddle clung to the back of the lead pack, intent on not letting them go. Problem was, as NBC’s Tim Hutchings pointed out, Huddle was at a pace well past that of her personal best. To keep going with them was folly; to fall back was to bid the podium goodbye. A minute or two passed and the inevitable slowly played out. She fell back, and as she did, the cameras lost sight of her, partially because there were so many entrants in the field, and people were getting lapped, and there were runners everywhere, and the camera was most intoxicated by Ayana who was refusing to let up in running away from everyone. Even so, in the end, despite earning no medal, Molly Huddle broke the American record in the event by a fairly shocking ten seconds.

Her post-race comment wrecked my heart: “I just couldn’t hang with the top three. I just…” And then she paused, trying to concoct a delicate way to phrase it, but there is no delicacy for such a harsh truth. She said: “They’re better runners.” Maybe they are, but no American had ever been better than her and, as such, she had never been better than herself. She went faster, and sometimes being faster is as good as being fastest.

Usain Bolt wanted to go faster in his 200 meter final. It is and has always been his best event, the one where his majesty, his length and physical imposition, is on starkest display. He ripped up the turn like he always does, poetry in furious motion, but the last 100 felt oddly less dominant than usual, even if he finished, as he generally does, leagues ahead of everyone else. The guy whose transcendence partially stems from never appearing to try looked like he was really trying. He actually grimaced, he pushed all the way to the finish line, and he even leaned. Afterwards, he expressed happiness for the win, of course, but he also admitted disappointment at his stellar yet pedestrian (for him) 19.78. “I wanted to go faster,” he confessed.

“My body wouldn’t respond to me,” he continued, “so I guess it’s just age and all around taking a toll.” It was weird. I had to come to grips with it. Maybe I expected too much of him; maybe he expected too much of himself; maybe it was just the natural course of things and Usain Bolt - yes, even him - is getting the athletic version of old. Still, in dismissing what he had accomplished, in expressing disbelief at his body’s refusal to follow him where he wanted it to go, he summed up a strange, beautiful truth. His opponent was never the other runners because he was too advanced for them, and his opponent was never the clock because he always seemed capable of defying time when he ignored showboating. No, Usain Bolt’s primary competition was his idea of his own ability and his body’s capacity to assert that idea.

Usain Bolt was always running against himself.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Giants on the Earth

I cribbed this post’s title from Kenny Moore’s 1987 Sports Illustrated article recounting the astonishing moment at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics when Bob Beamon obliterated the long jump record and Lee Evans broke the 400 meter world record by becoming the first man to go below 44 seconds, clocking a gritty 43.86. These two gargantuan feats of strength happened literally minutes apart, as if they were cosmically underwritten, and Moore’s scene-setting line still gives me chills: “Now we are moved to reflect upon what natural wonders these men were and how things came together for them in Mexico City on Oct. 18, 1968, at 3:46 in the afternoon....” Both those records eventually fell, as all records must, yet I never stopped thinking about them, wishing I could have been there to witness their rendering, wondering what it felt like for those who did.

Although Day 3 of track & field competition at the Rio Olympics last Sunday night was headlined by the men’s 100 meter dash, the men’s 400 meter final was scheduled immediately before it. On paper, the latter race appeared epic, stacked with 2008 Gold Medalist Lashawn Merritt, 2012 Gold Medalist Kirani James and 2015 World Champion Wayde Van Niekerk. Still, those who claimed afterwards they sensed a potential world record strike me as dubious. After all, once Evans delivered his 43.86 in 1968, only two men would hold the record again. Butch Reynolds passed Evans twenty years later and the immortal Michael Johnson passed Reynolds eleven years that, blazing a 43.18 at the turn of the century, a time so entrenched that I took it for granted even as I assumed its permanence.

Because of a semi-rough semi-final, Van Niekerk had been cast into dreaded lane 8, which, because of staggered lanes, put him in front of everyone else, meaning he would be running blind, unable to see his competitors and modulate this performance accordingly. That seemed a difficult impediment to overcome, not just for setting a world record but for winning at all. Then again, Evans operated out of Lane 6 in 1968, unable to track his primary competitor, fellow American Larry James, in Lane 2. Evans went on instinct. And I can’t help but wonder if not knowing where Merritt and James were actually gave Van Niekerk an unwitting edge. Because when he turned for home, he kept pushing in a way I’ve never seen at that distance, as if he assumed Merritt and James were right there with him, even though they weren’t. Normally the last 100 meters of a 400 are an exercise in agony as sprinters struggle rather than sprint and fight to hold their form to the finish. Even if Van Niekerk was in agony, he never struggled. He kept sprinting. I could not believe, and still kind of can’t, what I was seeing.

There was a moment when I tried to balance where Van Niekerk was in relation to the finish line with the time on the clock. It looked like he was going to finish below 43 seconds. But that couldn’t be possible, I thought. I must not be seeing where the finish line really is, I decided. But I was seeing it, and then he was across it, and the time that flashed, 43.03, felt to track fans what it must feel like for an astronomer to see some grand celestial object pop up where it is not supposed to be. I was not alive when Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, obviously, and Van Niekerk coming within a whisper of sub-43 is my closest equivalent. I screamed so loud my girlfriend came out of the other room because she thought I’d been watching Usain Bolt, who she wanted to watch with me, and she’d missed it. Bolt surpassing Michael Johnson’s 200 meter record in 2008 was transcendent, but when Bolt toed the line I was in the mindset that he could do it. I didn’t even consider Van Niekerk breaking the record when he set sail, let alone go that low. I thought he was going up in a standard 747 and the next thing I knew he’d landed on the moon.

Usain Bolt had already taken his trips to the moon, back in 2008 and 2009, when he broke world records in spectacular fashion, and then broke the ones he’d set. Now he was pitched to go past the bounds of the known track universe, to become the first person to win three Gold Medals to in the 100 meter dash, to go back-to-back-to-back, a triad of heavyweight titles, like Muhammad Ali’s, The Greatest, the closest pure athletic comparison I can think of for Bolt, who was on the precipice of being The Greatest too. And that’s where he was last Sunday night, on the precipice, as he kneeled in the blocks and took that trademark last look down the track, and that unmistakable heavenly hush came over the Olympic Stadium crowd, my heart was beating to burst, and I both wanted the race to begin more than anything and to stay in that few seconds, so alive and unknown, forever.

At the gun, Bolt started slow. He always starts slow, given his unlikely-for-a-sprinter 6’5 frame, but he looked even a tad heavier than usual, and he was several runners behind his chief nemesis, Justin Gatlin. Bolt doesn’t win races in the beginning, of course, he wins them in the end, eventually bringing the full power of his powerful frame to bear. Even so, in the flash of that slow start I saw a whole race unfold in my mind where he failed to uncoil and unleash, and so my body was flooded with a hot flash of panic so immense I frankly might have collapsed if he had not so quickly done what he always does – that is, meet everyone else in the race on their terms up to 60 meters and then……dictate his terms and leave the mere mortals in the dust. Back-to-back-to-back. He went where no runner had gone before, which was where I was so desperately wanted him to go, and I was so overcome with joy that he had, well, I don’t mind saying it since you probably could’ve guessed it – I wept. I don’t wish to declare Usain Bolt as “The Greatest Athlete of All Time” because that’s arbitrary, subject to everyone’s own criteria, but he is the greatest athlete I have ever seen, and I will leave it there.

I’d imagined Bolt winning that race at least since the World Championships a year ago, maybe even back to the Worlds in 2013, maybe even all the way back to the London Olympics, maybe further still, when he ran that 9.92 in a semi-final in Beijing without even really running at all. But I never imagined it in conjunction with Van Niekerk’s 400. And because everything has to be delineated in the year 2016, some were quick to declare Van Nierk’s achievement as more impressive than Bolt’s, which is just boring and reductive. All I know is that when I think of Bolt going back-to-back-to-back, I’ll think of Van Niekerk going 43.03. And when I think of Van Niekerk going 43.03, I’ll think of Bolt going back-to-back-to-back. I will think of an Olympic night unlike any I can recall. And their respective records will one day fall, because that is the way the world turns, but even when they do, the night will live on, forever and ever, and I will hold onto it for at least that long, that mystical night when two giants walked on the earth.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Shout-Out to the Extra: Without Limits Version

When The Beatles invaded, so to speak, America in 1964, it marked, as Greil Marcus put it, a “pop explosion”, and that pop explosion covered all manner of cultural ground. But when The Beatles invaded, so to speak, America in 1964, it also unleashed, as seen above, all manner of screaming girls, which was but one marker of that pop explosion engineered by the boys from Liverpool. Cultural forces like The Beatles can yield thoughtful, in-depth essays like those by Marcus and they can yield screaming girls who have never seen anyone so beautiful, never heard anything so remarkable, never wanted so desperately to be so close to someone. To see them is to have to scream.

I mention this because in the midst of his famed 5,000 meter race at 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, late American middle distance runner Steve Prefontaine was termed by British commentator David Coleman “an athletic Beatle.” And this is not inaccurate. By that time, particularly in his native Oregon, where so many sported shirts with his name, where so many chanted the famed abbrevation of his full surname in the midst of his races, not only wanting to will him to victory but to let him know that they saw him and loved him, he had become the closest thing America probably still has ever seen to a rock star on the track.

In Robert Towne's Prefontaine biopic “Without Limits”, superior to the documentary-ish “Pre”, he has minimal time to establish this transition from mere Person Who Runs to Rock Star. He does this via a lone race at Hayward Field where Pre defies Coach’s orders and takes the race from the front by running away from everyone else. His shattering victory and the cocky ebullience he exudes connects with the crowd, and the crowd goes crazy, as if momentarily Hayward Field becomes JFK Airport in 1964.

To signal this, Towne cuts from a confrontation between Pre and Coach where Coach tells runner to take his victory lap. Pre goes to do just that. And as he does, Towne cuts to a shot of the first row of the stadium, but he leaves, initially, all the faces blurred out save for one, as if the screaming horde, which is always comprised of individuals, has been reduced to just a single individual and what Pre means to her and her alone.

And this, I suppose, is fandom, which while so often being a communal experience, is also intensely personal. We may outwardly express our fandom in a manner identical to all those around us by screaming even as we inwardly know from what particular place that scream first begins to gather steam. Pre had so many fans, but in this shot he just has one, and she momentarily represents all of us