' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Thursday's Old Fashioned: Downhill Racer (1969)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Friday's Thursday's Old Fashioned: Downhill Racer (1969)

The ancient saying is that there is no "I" in team. Indeed. There is, however, an "I" in ski, and, what's more, there are two "I's" in skiing. This is apropos because "Downhill Racer", Michael Ritchie's 1969 film, is not titled "Downhill Racing" for a reason. It is very much about an individual. Its basis is in the rugged, death-defying but glamorous (from a distance) sport of alpine skiing. And while alpine skiers may be part of a team, alpine skiing is not, as one of the film's characters wryly observes, a team sport. High on the mountain, planted in the starting gate, casting your eyes back down the steep and sloping terrain, it is the skier and the skier alone, the pinnacle of individuality.

It made me think of Bode Miller, the supremely talented American skier who at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin was much derided by the American media - not necessarily incorrectly - for his selfishness and apparent disinterest in the team. Those media members, however, might have been best served to have re-familiarized themselves with "Downhill Racer", which brilliantly and harshly bashes the righteous Hot Takes that these days is served (usually cold) as sportswriting. This film is a deadeye rebuke of every syrupy, exaggerated sports movie that you have ever seen, a reminder that talent and nobility do not always go hand-in-hand, cartwheeling down the snowy hillside.

The film opens with gliding shots of a downhill European mountain, spectators lined up alongside the competition course, yet conspicuously we hear no cheering, no noise whatsoever. It is "Downhill Racer" taking us inside the mind of its character where everything superfluous is blotted out, and ultimately it would seem that literally everything not involved with the event is superfluous. This is what makes the ever-reticent Robert Redford's casting as protagonist Dave Chappellet so flawless.

Chappellet is fearlessly cocky and disturbingly self-involved, and upon his arrival in Europe to join the U.S. ski team, Ritchie serves a shot of Redford glancing back at the mountain in the distance. That is his foremost relationship throughout the film - he and the mountain - and this will not change. Consider the movie poster (above). It is crafted in such a way as to almost render the female's face as the beginning of the snowy hill he must traverse, suggesting that even when looking into the eyes of the one he "loves", he sees only himself.

His bravado is demonstrated when he refuses to start his very first race on account of being assigned such a late starting position, meaning that the snow on the course will essentially be useless for racing. Nevertheless, when he draws another late starting position for the ensuing race, he does go for it, and improbably finishes fourth. It should be a moment for joy. Instead he takes the opportunity to intone that maybe such a finish should him a start higher up in the order next time. Uff-da.

The team coach is Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) and it is telling how little he truly factors into the plot. He harangues Chappelle about his attitude and tries to corral him here and there, but it all has little effect. No, Chappelle is the veritable lone wolf, and he will do and say as he pleases, win or lose. Instead Coach Claire spends most of the movie trying to raise money for the ski team, spouting platitudes about how his skiers are "roving ambassadors for an American way of life." And maybe those platitudes are truer than we think. When Chappelle's close-mouthed father asks his son what the point of all this racing is, Chapelle replies: "Well, I'll be famous. I'll be champion." Take heed of the order in which those words arrive. First, famous. Then, champion. 'merica, bitches.

Eventually, as she must, a Love Interest will enter the fold in the form of Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv), the voluptuous assistant of a European ski manufacturer (Karl Michael Vogler) who is courting Chappelle for means to advertise his brand. Chappelle, though, only seems to have eyes for Carole, but pay close attention to his eyes when Carole remarks "I've been reading about you." They light up. That's what turns him on, and it is even less solipsistic than a later moment when he listens to her read an article aloud about him. She finishes. He says "read it again." This is his idea of foreplay.

She will not, however, provide the cure of what ails him. Instead when he goes looking for her during Christmas break, only to realize she has chosen to spend it with her family instead of him, he is angered. Their relationship ends in the front seat of her car when she attempts to relay an innocent story about being home for the holidays. He jams on her car horn, shutting her up, effectively finishing the relationship right then and there.

Naturally you might think Chappelle is therefore due for a spectacular comeuppance. Alas, 'tis not to be. To the Olympics he will go, and the film ends in a freeze-frame of Chappelle being lifted up and carried away post-Gold Medal run, a shot virtually dripping with sulfuric acid, a parody of every momentous, life-affirming Sports Movie Freeze-Frame you have ever witnessed.

Heroes are created by the camera.

1 comment:

R.A. Ryan said...

landed here this morning via a downhill racer search. i enjoyed your thoughts and will take a look around. i have some thoughts on my own about what happens to dave later. anyway, i like cinema, too, so will take a look around your site. thanks.