' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Marathon (1993)

Friday, August 21, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Marathon (1993)

The Marathon, among the oldest modern Olympic events, contested at every one since 1896, is perhaps the Games’ centerpiece, generally the last event held and winding its way through the streets of the host city, one last goodbye to the competition and to the place. So in his 1993 documentary officially recounting the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, director Carlos Suara makes the men’s marathon the through-line, starting with it and then cutting back and forth to it as he captures other events from across the full two-week spectrum. At first, this device might seem to add little, a grace note rather than adding up to anything meaningful. But Suara is no hurry, gradually allowing its significance to take hold.

In truth, “Marathon” does not begin with the beginning of the marathon; it begins with the opening ceremonies. That’s true of many Olympic documentaries, of course, and like those Suara revels in the Parade of Nations, including America’s famed basketball Dream Team, the camera singling out Magic Johnson and other NBA stars who chose to attend the festivities, lingering over them here, gathered in the infield with everyone else, as long as he does later on the actual basketball court, as if impressing upon us that their fame is what made them stand out as much as their talent.

More captivatingly, though, Suara devotes significant time to the Ceremonies’ narrative, especially a colossal rendering of the myth explaining Barcelona’s name, showing Heracles, crossing the Mediterranean on his fourth labor, as one of his ships becoming stranded in a storm, wrecking at Montjuic, site of the Olympic stadium, naming it Barca Nona. There are sweeping panoramas of this massive artistic creation from above and below but just as frequently Suara brings his camera in close, disappearing the crowd, just leaving you with this impressive manmade sea, truly placing you inside the narrative and lifting it up to genuine mythologic pitch, a far cry from seeing it on NBC with Bob Costas and Katie Couric providing analysis off a spreadsheet.

Sports-wise, Suara is most fascinated by the track, recounting sprints, distance races, and field events, like the long jump duel between Carl Lewis and Mike Powell where an image of the latter with his hands folded in prayer after his last leap summarizes how Suara communicates almost entirely through images rather than commentary. He likes showing a race at full speed, then stopping and running it back in slow motion, turning low-angled shots of runners with the crowd rising up behind them into virtual paintings of spectators appreciating sport. Best, though, are the unexpected bursts of emotion, like Voula Patoulidou of Greece unexpectedly winning the 100 meter hurdles. If we know it’s unexpected, it’s because of her reaction, stupefied exhilaration and then, as she celebrates with people sitting in the stands, she literally seems to faint, if only for a moment, made so powerful because of the raw presentation. Nothing away from the track, alas, quite lives up to it, lovely images that are nevertheless context-free which undermines the ultimate point. (Also, a pointless personal quibble: no scenes at the Montjuïc Municipal Pool, the most striking Olympic venue of all time.)

That ultimate point begins to emerge mid-movie when Suaron recounts the women’s marathon. He focuses on the race, yes, as well as the medal winners but he focuses just as much on everyone else, all the finishers, and the agony splayed across their faces and their exhausted bodies after they cross the finish line some collapsing, some carried off on stretchers, some just putting their hands to their hips. One brilliant shot watches one competitor, having just completed the race, almost limping off, away from the track, while another runner enters the stadium (one runner goes one way, the other runner goes the other way), summarizing this endless procession of endurance tests. One runner staggers to the finish, her legs seeming to seize up, and after she finishes, medical people surround her and help her onto a stretcher, her wide eyes hardly seeming to comprehend what’s even happening but to exhausted to ask. It’s the struggle, I suddenly thought to myself, not the triumph.

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