' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: People, Hopes, Medals (1960)

Friday, February 18, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: People, Hopes, Medals (1960)

The 1960 Winter Olympics in California’s Squaw Valley, since renamed Palisades Tahoe due to the derogatory nature of the original name toward indigenous Americans, were put in place before the place in question existed. Instead, the bid was sold as an undeveloped site that could be built into a Winter Olympics site, one that would subsequently be transformed into a premier winter resort area near Lake Tahoe, frequented by celebrities. Indeed, “People, Hopes, Medals”, the official documentary of the 1960 Games, might have done better to add one word to that succinct title: Stars. I’m not just talking about Hollywood So & Sos like Jayne Mansfield, Tony Curtis, and Bing Crosby, all glimpsed on camera checking out the quadrennial sporting spectacle and foreshadowing Palisades Tahoe’s shimmering future, but the athletes themselves. Director Herbert Meisel likes images of the athletes not merely in competition but just before, looking right into the camera with big, beaming smiles, framing them like catalogue cover models. When we briefly end up behind the scenes as skiers wax their skis, the narrator notes that this waxing process is almost too mysterious to understand and then forgoes trying to understand it at all. Instead the camera finds a female skier applying lipstick while looking in a hand mirror and getting ready, I guess, for her close-up. 

These Games were in America, but “People, Hopes, Medals” was a (West) German production. That might well be why the very first athlete we see compete is downhill skier from Deutschland and why we even briefly hop across the ocean to Munich where the German Nordic Combined winner Georg Thoma triumphantly returns home. Then again, he was the first non-Nordic to win the event and perhaps that was worth lingering over. Even so, the movie feels American in its presentation, the dueling German narrators – Heinz Fischer-Karwin and Heinz Maegerlein – frequently evoking “The stars are out!” narrators of the Oscar red carpet in their breezy tenor. They also crack jokes, wondering aloud at one point what event they should segue to next. (They even sometimes poke fun at spectators and competitors in a way that I wouldn’t hesitate to call mean-spirited.) There are other Olympic documentaries that have nonchalant passages, like 1956’s “Rendez-Vous a Melbourne”, but rarely one that is as thoroughly nonchalant as “People, Hopes, Medals”, sort of assuming the perspective of the spectator we see in the shadow of a ski jump platform smoking a cigarette, playing it cool.

That relaxed manner is mostly expressed through music. Here and there Meisel lets the soundtrack drop out to revel in the sounds of the game, like the less famous U.S. hockey upset of the U.S.S.R., where prominent boos can be heard from the crowd, though to what point and purpose is never exactly explained. But that’s an outlier, as if fearful such vérité will mellow the buzz, instead opting for a nigh omnipresent score of orchestral big band music that renders so much Olympian bravado, from the ski slopes to the skating rink, as carefree. When we see cross country skiers huffing and puffing, or windy conditions at the top of the downhill run, the dissonance between the image on screen and the jauntiness of the score is profound. Honestly, I kind of loved this jovial approach, especially in light of our recently (understandably) dour Olympics, to feel like I had just wandered into a full length 1960s newsreel recounting our Olympic athletes like so many radiant silver screen gladiators. In one avant-garde touch, Meisel will from time to time cut to a reoccurring image of fireworks. “Stars, all of them stars,” the narrator says each time, equating an athlete’s preceding feat of strength with a comet streaking across the sky. 

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