Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Film Olympics : Archery to Judo

The Olympics, the thirtieth modern Games, start in less than a fortnight. The Olympics themselves have long been filmed as well as cinematically reenacted. What of those films in which Olympic feats and endeavours are achieved? Who are those characters who have tried out these sports, perhaps out of competition and outside of any rules, and succeeded to extraordinary effect?

I am especially interested in characters performing / practising the sport's activity without participating in the actual sport itself.

In 21st Century cinema the ancient art of Archery may have been overwhelmed by louder and more devastating machinery, abandoning Artemis/Diana, William Tell and Robin Hood to another, quainter time.

And yet, out of the woods of old myth came first the bow-wielding elf Legolas in Peter Jackson's adaptations of the Lord of the Rings books, then the equally adept Paris in Troy (both played by Orlando Bloom).

In 2012, archery is relevant in new versions of old worlds or a future made old by apocalypse, as in The Hunger Games. Archery is cool in its own context, one could say, in the hands of Princess Merida, for example, in Brave's Scottish highlands, or in fables such as Snow White and the Huntsman. The 10th Century, that's where it belongs. However, Marvel comic book character Hawkeye in The Avengers, a film very much set now, amongst the most explosive of powers and weaponry, has demonstrated that the archer is verily back in vogue.

Much like the lightsaber was more civilised than the blaster to Obi-Wan Kenobi, so the bow and arrow maintains an aura of honour. It is a tool of exquisite precision which seems to concentrate all the character's personality and energy into its form.

The disciplines of Athletics are the foundation of any action film: Captain John Carter doing the high (high) jump; Ethan Hunt long jumping over a hole in a bridge in Mission Impossible 3; pole vaulting over prison walls in Naked Gun 33 1/3 or across deadly ground in Tremors; Mayans hurling javelins/spears at escapees in Apocalypto; the Man of Steel hammer-throwing a Kryptonian into the sky by his feet in Superman II; James Bond hurtling down the streets of London in Skyfall. Put in the effort, push yourself, run against fear and for desire, race against time and against fate.

I cannot say that Badminton, or anything like it, makes an appearance in too many films. King, an Indonesian film from 2009 about a boy who fulfills his dreams through badminton, is supposedly the only fiction film that revolves around the sport. Certainly there have been brief scenes of people (children especially) playing badminton or of improvised bats and shuttlecocks but none stick in the mind. 

Basketball is ubiquitous in depictions of American life. This year high school student Peter Parker showed his (arachnid) powers/prowess on the court in The Amazing Spider-Man. The court is often the battleground for self-esteem and the weighing of social worth, issues of power flux that film is and always will be concerned with. The documentary Hoop Dreams gave us a glimpse of how basketball can be important in the same way in real life.

Have dreams been so finely balanced as in the moment when the clock has stopped and the ball is flying in slow motion towards the net?

If basketball has always been a part of Americana (cinematica), BMX bikes, or Mountain Biking, became something of a phenomenon in the 1980s. Every kid wanted one and every cool kid on the silver screen had one: The Goonies, E.T... There was even, in 1983, an Australian film about BMX Bandits. Super 8, an homage to the films of the Eighties, made sure to put its kids on bikes, cruising through small town suburban streets as they always did, criss-crossing from schools, to diners, to secret hideouts.

More recently mountain bikes are taken up the slopes where riders get lost or are slain by monsters.

To these characters, pushing for the first time at adulthood, the bikes represent freedom and escape. The same goes for Cycling in general, as seen in the Dardenne brothers' Le Gamin Au Velo, about a kid who is constantly on the move, running from disappointment towards a love and security always just over the horizon. The motorcycle offers a more dynamic, steroidal version of this feeling of unanchored power (The Wild Ones...).

As cycling often goes in tandem with the countryside, so Canoeing is the favoured mode of transport for characters in the back of beyond, slipping through the veins of the exotic, banked by forests and the sounds and calls therein; Deliverance, Pocahontas, The New World. Canoeing can be an adventure happening to you. It can also be an adventure that you have claimed, riding the rapids for recreation. You're a daredevil one inch away from having your pride bruised and your life taken. One minute you are laughing at nature's boasts, the next it is swallowing you whole.

It is very much the same story when it comes to Diving. You can dive in a pool decorated with babes just for the hell of it. You can dive to show off, or make a stand, like in Studio Ghibli's From Up on Poppy Hill. It's a show of courage. It's a last resort in Apocalypto, The Fugitive or Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and a key ingredient in many a chase. A choice : face the enemy or risk it all.

The Exhilaration of Panic and Love :  
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and From Up On Poppy Hill

A woman or a man standing on the edge of a bridge ready to jump is the start of many films - Dario Argento's Trauma and Patrice Leconte's Girl on the Bridge are just two. It is a turning point before we've even started our journey.

They want to end it all, like David in A.I., but in that act discover there is more to live for. A dive into the cool, deep waters when all seems lost leads to rebirth in The Bourne Ultimatum and Femme Fatale too.

Like archery, Equestrianism and Fencing take place in, or are evocative of, a time before. They are practices wrapped up in concepts of uncomplicated and uncynical heroism (be it generals or renegades). As you are perched above, the horse's back becomes a muscular marble or steaming mahogany throne.

The amount of men and women who have ridden into battle, high-tailed it into the forest leaping over fallen trees, or galloped into the sunset cannot be counted. Again, cinematically, horse-riding is freedom. Romantic interest is piqued by a feisty lady at one with the beast, hair blowing in the wind, or by a man who has tamed and harnessed nature. Both sights provoke slack-jawed awe.

The riderless horse, a picture of abandonment and loneliness as well as of liberty and play, is an intensely dramatic image.

There is something oddball and old-style queer about fencing, or sword fighting undertaken in the fencing style. It is for those who like matters decided cleanly and in a dignified manner, to touch the point upon your adversary's chest as if it were an accusing finger; The Princess Bride, Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood 

In films It is likely the least dangerous of confrontations with a blade. In Die Another Day, the real danger comes when the foil, epee or sabre are swapped for a meaty sword that promises a pound of excised flesh.

Football is a fertile ground for storytelling, given its vast culture of professional, semi-professional, Sunday league and recreational play, of passion, of community and place, of the richest and the poorest, the West and the Orient united. It is like Basketball to Americans, only more so.

It lends itself to small tales of girl soccer teams, to tales of pluck (Mike Bassett, England Manager), of inspiration (Bend it Like Beckham) of those practically unhinged by its demands on the soul (The Damned United, The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty, Fever Pitch, sundry depictions of hooliganism).

[Image from]

If you discount the documentary which followed a master through the course of the game (Zidane : A 21st Century Portrait), the professional game, it is fair to say, has never been satisfactorily depicted (see Goal!). It is impossible to replicate something that, to billions, is more dramatic than fiction could ever be. So something magical or historically momentous must be added - a fight for democracy and good itself against the Nazis in Escape to Victory or a literally super-powered battle in Shaolin Soccer.

But what of football in films that isn't football itself? What about Crank 2's hero Chelios booting a severed head into a swimming pool. Good technique.

Films which feature Gymnastics, prominently or at least in a meaningful way, are thin on the ground. In 1984 a TV movie was made about Romanian gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci (entitled Nadia). In 2006 came Stick It! about a teenage gymnast who learns to positively channel her rebellious nature and White Palms (from the chalk gymnasts put on their hands for grip), a Hungarian film with a similar story arc, this time a troubled young man on the way to maturity.

The most haunting and beautiful moment of gymnastics outside the hall may very well appear at the beginning of Alexander Sokurov's biopic of Adolf Hitler, Moloch. In the Bavarian Alps, outside a vast holiday house / military complex shrouded in dense moonlit fog, a nude Eva Braun exercises on the precipice.

Chak de India (2007), about a women's team, seems to be the only major film about Hockey. Field hockey is a strictly female pursuit in the cinema, and certainly no-holds barred (St.Trinian's for both). Knee-shattering, ankle-scraping brutality seems to be hockey's calling card in films, and that's ignoring the damage an ice hockey stick can wreak in films like City of Violence and Running Scared. 

Away from the field this hard wood can be deadly (a shepherd's crook with which to batter lost sheep), a lifesaver for Lisa (Rachel McAdams) in Red Eye.

Sanshiro Sugata marked the directorial debut of Akira Kurosawa in 1943. As is often the case in fiction, the acquiring of skills and discipline in sport, here Judo, are a metaphor and catalyst for the taking on of the responsibilities and knowledge of adulthood. Therefore the development of a person is a matter of self-moulding, of achieving proficiencies and expertises.

Those proficiencies serve James Cagney (an actor famous for his portrayals of pugnacity and a black belt in Judo) well in a fight in Blood on the Sun (1945).

Sanshiro Sugata (Top), Blood on the Sun (Above)

Monday, 16 July 2012


From the very moment Alien is evoked Prometheus is doomed, not because Prometheus might demystify the allure of its mother-offspring or be lost in its shadow but because its inheritance inhibits it, paralyses it and brings crashing down. Bathos. Anti-climax. Head tilted heavenward, eyes lashed to the ground. An android because of Alien. An axe because of Alien. A white shirt and panties because of Alien. This is nonsense.

La pregunta de todos : 'Where are we from?' 'Why?' ends with the birth of a spindly creature (the least impressive one of all, despite evolving from the others) hissing unmenacingly. All our journeys, our existential tumult our hope our fear, the awesome void, laic sanctity, divine whim, expectant children are all for nought because all we are doing is meeting an old friend in a strange place.

Small things have big beginnings.

There is such potential in that opening sacrifice, the grandeur, the otherness. There is a frisson and a tremble ("They engineered us"). There is more potential here than in a hundred Aliens. It is always almost there.

Parallels, yes, allusions. Black goo that creates and destroys: oil, Iraq, arrogance and hubris. That works and could have been explored. Feet-washing, miracle births, arms outstretched cross-like, 2,000 years, christological symbolism. A Greek fable in the name and sprinkled around works like a clever wink for a pat on the back.

With little of its own grandness. Prometheus doesn't feel what it says in its sinews and in its heart. It is curiously empty. It lacks atmosphere. There is no time for things to sink in or their significance to be felt. It is one thing after another. Prometheus does have ideas, and complexities and 'themes' but what do they do? They don't flourish through the story or through the people. It knows the world but not itself.

That which it does best is universal: parents and children, bonds of love given, withheld, squandered, unresolved (life, death and sex). Cycles. What is creation? What are we worth? Are we Gods?

Even better, it has thoughts, though rare:

"Why do you think your people made me?"

"We made you 'cos we could"

"Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?"

Eventually all this gets lost.

We want visions, art to give its answers and not more questions. It has that freedom and we give it that right but Prometheus is a timid shout.

All that existential wonder and terror is flattened into fight or flight, aaaah into AARRGH!! Peril and not much more.

Prometheus needs its own story. Why other mythologies? Why Greek , why Christian? Is this so we recognise it as myth, as something important? Abominable monsters and the cold gaze of Engineers ultimately point not upwards to the hands of Gods but down and back to us and what we already knew was not enough to know. We have the Bible, we have Alien and Prometheus stays in their shadow.

Elizabeth is the light of the film, the through-line through the dull gloom, still looking for her God despite, longing for her father gone, wanting to bring life into the world and to understand it. She wants to embrace her instincts and feed her mind. She carries on to another planet, another adventure. She fulfills the imperatives of her faith in testing it. She has dreams and doubts and pains unlike the crew, the room-fillers. We don't believe in them.

One would like to think she is like us.

We should decide : do we go with her now to find our maker, fair, foul or fate, or do we want a story about a story, a myth about myths, truths about truths? Do we want another  Alien, a tuppenny fright, or do we want something different; bigger, better, bolder?

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

White Dog (1982) Samuel Fuller

One night driving home Julie knocks over a dog, a white German Shepherd. She takes it to the vet and then home. Over the coming weeks Julie learns that not only has the dog been trained to attack people but to attack black people, any time and any where, without discrimination.

Black men were paid to hit it, you see, and hurt it until no reason to hate became every reason.

The dog does not represent racist people (they represent themselves) but racism in pure form passed on and cultivated by individuals. That which was invisible behind the trainer's benign smile and gently proffered rattling tin of sweets reveals its terror in blood-stained fur and borne fangs.

It is emotion and rage unfiltered by common decency or social constraints. 

If one were to take White Dog, both film and protagonist, as a comprehensive allegory/metaphor then it would prove incomplete and inadequate. White Dog is a picture about the evil of and seemingly intractable struggle against racism and in that regard it concentrates on nurture, the influence that others can have on us and, though not explicitly, how difficult it is to diverge from those paths we have started down.

Teaching, brainwashing, indoctrination, whatever name it wears. 

The absence here of a dramatised 'discussion' of innate racism (nature) suggests that it is either being rejected out of hand (a hopeful thought implying that there is a cycle that can be broken), something that positive nurture can unpick, or merely too thorny an issue to broach.

White Dog emerges relatively unscathed from the minefield of traps that come with territory of this kind : manipulation, sensationalism, one-eyedness, or the potential for a (hypocritical) black people v white people dynamic.

Although the film is of course (apart from being fiction, albeit fiction that reaches out and touches real nerves) about white people's attitudes to black people abstracted through a dog, no additional race-based conflict is intentionally set up by the film. Images such as the one above may have been problematic and/or provocative (leaving aside that provocation is a tango for two willing partners) if the sometime fevered emotional pitch of the film had come to cloud its cool, measured and fundamentally good disposition.

*                        *                         *

Julie takes the dog to an animal training centre and is told that the dog must be put down. An attack dog we are led to believe can not be saved. One man at Noah's Ark, though, a maverick trainer called Keys, a black man, takes on the task on Julie's behalf. His belief that a racist dog can be untaught has come to obsess him, a mix of professional pride, personal suffering, passion and compassion. He has failed with other dogs. He wants to tear out that racist hate once and for all, and alter man's vicious ways through the dog's salvation, from effect back up to cause.

White Dog, its gnashing despair, its espoir éclaté, its gritted tension of sharp teeth and soft meat has the power of a raging current so powerful that only rarely can the declamatory and essayistic underpinnings, the laudably apparent conviction poured into the work, come bobbing gauchely to the surface of the narrative:

"That dog is sick!"

"Then he should be cured!"

"Darling, the people that made him sick made him permanently sick!"

"Then they should be put to sleep, not the dog!"

This argument between Julie and her boyfriend is, thankfully, an exception, though its stridency can be forgiven in part by Julie's earlier visit to the dog pound and its awful death chamber.

Regardless, it is not enough to have ideas but to give them life. Here is life. Here is life that we can care about, the girl's pains, the trainer's sorrow, the dog's hair-trigger psychosis. In the end it feels as if the dog's fate is mankind's - can it resist hate in the loving embrace of its owner? At Noah's Ark, in an earth-like cage complete with lines of longitude and latitude, can we be saved, will all the sin be washed away in the great flood?

Here is a microcosm:

Microcosm : Fighting for Earth

After all his training, Keys gives the dog a final test. Black skin exposed, dog unchained, the battle against racism is won. Julie hugs her panting, smiling dog. The camera begins to circle them triumphantly, spinning across Julie's face, around the back of her head, until we return to the dog, no longer Jekyll but Hyde (as the trainers learn to call him), a snarling red-eyed beast. The battle against hate is lost, against the pain of abuse. Julie's loving embrace lets slip the dog of war and he runs at the Ark's white owner, a picture of the man who first infected him with loathing.

The sight of the dog in full flight, accompanied by Ennio Morricone's plaintive, terrifying music, is nothing less than tragic. The man is mauled.

The dog is shot and lies in the sand, its face still contorted in a rending grimace. No solutions, no easy fix, no end in sight. All that is left is the mask, the mask that has become the face.

Violence deafens us to violence and its acts. Earlier, in Julie's clifftop flat, the dog could not hear an intruder attempt to rape her because of explosions detonating on the television.

Nurture can be that which we absorb unconsciously at a time when we have no choice in acquiescing or that which appeals to us instinctively and we take on as our own with some manner of agency.

Keys tells us that he didn't want to work in Anthropology, as his parents do, yet his life's work is remarkably similar - dusting for human fingerprints left on fur. We see, when Julie pays a visit to a black friend attacked by the dog, that she is clutching Francois Truffaut's book on Alfred Hitchcock (click on below image for a closer look). Truffaut had long professed his admiration of Hitchcock's work and acknowledged its impact on his own style.

These influences, these impacts, these marks : can they be ironed out like freshly raked sand, or do the wounds remain forever, to be salved but never to be healed.Try or give up, redeem or wipe out? Who is on the Ark and who is off?

*                          *                             *

As I said before, White Dog should not be taken as a comprehensive manifesto on racism but a purposely narrow and squeezed cry of anguish, an appeal and yes, a rollicking story.

I have written out (or will be about to write out) below some letters written in response to LIFE magazine's review of the book by Romain Gary on which Fuller's film was based. They provide a glimpse of  real-life wrestles and a flavour of the complex and troublesome knot at the heart of racism and its depiction:

...Gary doggedly keeps trying to induce's a phony, LIFE, and like so much of the racist garbage printed these days, it's completely negative, with neither constructive thought nor inspiration
                                                                      Colin G Male

Most of your readers will be surprised and shocked to read about the cruel misuse and tortured training of attack and guard dogs. The sad fact is that we and many animal shelters see daily evidence of White Dog and Black Dog - poor abused creatures ruined by man and so demented with fear and nervousness that our greatest service to them is prompt euthanasia

                                                                       Mrs Paul Kiernan, President,           Washington Animal Rescue League

Some months ago I translated from Polish Echoes of Treblinka, a short story of Stefan Korbonski, a wartime underground leader in German occupied Poland. This story tells of a dog trained to kill inmates of a Nazi concentration camp. The dog, pride and joy of his master, SS Haupststurmfuehrer Hans Bauer, is retrained by a Jewish veterinarian (a camp inmate) during Bauer's absence and kills his master on his return. 

We are capable of producing White Dogs in any circumstances. Whether it's "Alle Juden Raus!" or "Get them niggers!", the obscenity is the same

                                                                       Marta Erdman

Julie approaches the dog pound's death chamber