' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: White Rock (1977)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: White Rock (1977)

“White Rock”, British director Tony Maylam’s official film for the 1976 Innsbruck, Austria Winter Olympics, is like NFL Films as scored by Rick Wakeman instead of Sam Spence crossed with a 1970s winter athletics instructional film as narrated by James Coburn. Indeed, as the film opens Coburn stands before us, and before a bobsled track, intoning about the Winter Olympics being the most exciting championship “in the whole spectrum of sport.” As he concludes this monologue, almost as if he expects the audience not to believe his grandiloquent tone, he dismissively waves his arm toward the camera, as if to say, “Ah, you’re useless.” Then, he turns and walks back toward the bobsled track, like he is lost in the spectrum he has just summarized, momentarily unconcerned we are even there.

Granted, Coburn’s role can sometimes seem to be running more interference even as he invites us in. He is here, nominally, to tell us how everything works, like the ski jump, which his indelible baritone lends the sport the serious drama it deserves. His explanation of the so-called point of no return, when a ski jumper sets sail down the ramp meaning it’s fly or die, will send shivers down your spine. But these little theatrical explainers, recounted with no musical score, can, frankly, verge on the melodramatic, a melodrama often accentuated by the Rick Wakeman score, which is at once era-appropriate and, sometimes, weirdly timeless, with spacey synthesizers, stately choirs, and pan flute that takes us into the mystic.

Elsewhere, however, mere explanations are not enough as Coburn invites himself along for the ride, whether it is sitting on the bench amidst a gaggle of hockey players or going for a ride in a bobsled – which he drives himself, finishing by removing his goggles and wistfully remarking “That was a good run.” Later, he is seen in medium shot applying wax to skis, and as he begins to explain how each skier has his/her own secret waxy potion, the camera drifts closer, inviting us in on the secret. He does not, it should be noted, get anywhere near the ice during pairs figure skating. If that sounds expected, I found it a little disappointing. Could he not have enlisted Susannah York to help demonstrate a twist lift?

At the same time, “White Rock” remains a bit spare on the actual Olympic particulars. It does not simply refuse to exist as a comprehensive recounting, completely sidelining, say, American figure skating heroine Dorothy Hamill, but offering only bare bones digressions on Austrian skier Franz Klammer winning the Men’s Downhill. Individual personalities are not uncovered or examined, eliciting the sensation that the athletes are merely extensions of their sports, and in that context, with such tight focus, Maylam is able to extract profundity on a more universal basis. Like Klammer’s Austrian skiing rival, for instance, who we see crash out in the Men’s Downhill. As he does, the camera observes this in slow motion, prolonging the agony, an agony as emotional as physical, underlined by Coburn plaintively remarking “The next Olympics are in four years.” Uff da.

Maybe that pain is why Maylam forgoes a scene of the closing ceremonies since the closing ceremonies, for Olympics enthusiasts anyway, are always so painful, reminding us how long until the next one. Instead we see Coburn sidle up to the extinguished Olympic cauldron, presumably after the Innsbruck games have concluded, and gazing out over the mountainous terrain, sad but satisfied. It recalls an earlier shot, after a luge run, where the editing momentarily tricks us into suspecting that the luger is, in fact, Coburn. It is not, which we see as he walks in from the right, expressing his admiration and astonishment for the luger. The luger then gets up from his sled and walks right past Coburn and out of the frame as our faithful narrator crosses to the luge track, removes a cigar, lights it, sits down, and casts his eyes back up from whence the luger roared, like a man who can’t bear to let go the thought of what he just saw.

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