Thursday, March 1, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Olympia, Olympiad, Olympics

The Film Walrus is hardly the first person to point out conspicuous similarities between films released around the same time: Armageddon/Deep Impact, Volcano/Dante’s Peak, Bug’s Life/Antz, The Descent/The Cave, Capote/Infamous, etc. Sometimes it’s coincidence and sometimes it’s lack of creativity. Either way, it’s always fun to compare the two and see which is better and that’s why I’m introducing The Iceberg Arena.

The Iceberg Arena borrows its name from the sacred walrus combat tradition, wherein two walruses fight over a mate or a dead seal on a drifting, ever-shrinking iceberg. The fighting becomes more intense as the arena contracts. Tragically, even if one walrus reigns supreme, it is a hollow victory because global warming dissolves the iceberg from underneath their innocent blubber. Luckily walruses can swim.

Thus in the grand tradition of walrus battles and comparing movies, The Iceberg Arena will be a reoccurring format where I allow two films to fight tusk and fin. Of course, this being The Film Walrus, the contestants will be more interesting and unusual than “Armageddon” or “Dante’s Peak.” To inaugurate the combat, this Iceberg Arena is dedicated to the king of competition itself: The Olympics.

“Olympia Parts I and II” (1938) vs “Tokyo Olympiad” (1965)

The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin and filmed by Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl, an early female documentary maker, had become a controversial but well-regarded director with her 1936 “Triumph of the Will.” The film remains one of the best propaganda films ever made, possessing a stirring visual power despite its disturbing Nazi iconography and the terrible historical events that comprise its darker unseen half.

“Olympia” at nearly four hours, was Riefenstahl’s next film and it boldly continues her earlier visual mastery. She set the tone for decades of sports reporting afterwards with effective techniques like capturing races in slow-motion, aiming telephotos lenses down the track to catch the details of athlete’s expression and exertion, and attaching cameras to blimps for impressive aerial views. Her surprisingly artistic approach, as in her alternatively low and high angle shots of rotating divers in midair, is often haled with good reason.

But Riefenstahl’s Nazi sympathies also carry over from her previous film. The same low angle shots that exalt the divers’ arcs across the heavens are shared with Hitler gazing out across the stadium.

The film opens with a bizarre ode to the Aryan body-type, the camera tediously exploring Roman ruins and fetishizing the idealized nude statues which come to life in a multiple-superimposed climax of German flesh and muscle. The lingering sense of body worship never quite dissolves, subtly underlying the sports and making the close-ups uncomfortable. It interferes most conspicuously with the framing; Riefenstahl had dozens of cameras on hand but chooses extended shots that cut off the tops of heads, faces or nearby competitors to focus on legs, torsos and arms.

African-American athlete-extraordinaire Jesse Owens took several gold medals including the 100m, 200m, long jump and relay. His victory and the lock-out success of three other Americans in the Decathlon hampered Hitler’s intention that the 1936 Olympics be a triumph of the Aryan genotype. Riefenstahl doesn’t hide their victories and defenders of the film often cite this fact as proof of its balance and lack of propaganda intent, but certainly it would have been impossibly conspicuous to excise such key events as the 100m sprint, relay and decathlon especially since the movie was meant to recuperate much of its extreme expense in international sales.

Tokyo was scheduled to host the Olympics after Berlin, but by 1940 the war made the event impossible and it was canceled. 27 years later the Olympics did make it to Tokyo and well-established fiction director Kon Ichikawa was commissioned to film it. Ichikawa probably seemed like a safe bet; completely the philosophical opposite of Riefenstahl (it was important to Tokyo that they prove their good intentions to the world), Ichikawa had brought a very personal humanist touch to such varied subjects as arson (“Enjo” [1958]), cannibalism (“Fire on the Plains” [1959]) and sexual deviancy (“Odd Obsession” [1959]).

However, upon returning with the finished 3-hour film, the Japanese Olympics committee was outraged. Ichikawa had failed to “document the event” and instead had indulged in making “a work of art” as it was derisively declared. The committee was angered that the full expense and scope of the construction was not foregrounded. The minister of education complained that it would not be understood by children in the schools where it was booked to play across the country.

Ichikawa’s film often neglects to quote the winning times, distances and scores and in an even bolder stroke, often shows less interest in the winner than the losers. At one point Ichikawa strays into an extended vignette following a participant from Chad (“he is older than his country”) as he wanders the streets barefoot and eats a quiet meal. Riefenstahl finishes Part I of her film with the marathon, focusing with extreme close-ups and stock footage on the steady stride and imperturbable force of the lead runner. Ichikawa’s camera hangs back to watch the stranglers, the sweating pained faces of the men stopping for drinks or grabbing sponges on the go. When it does return to the victor it is with the hope of reading his thoughts at the deeply personal moment, and the narrator seems saddened by the stoic lack of expression.

While “Olympia” is virtually unanimously heralded as the highpoint of artistry in sports documentation, Ichikawa’s craft seems superior to my eye. He benefits from having more than a hundred cameras, 70mm color Tohoscope (1:2.35 aspect ratio) footage, 1600mm lenses and years more experience than Riefenstahl. His slow-motion shots (the gymnastics against a black background, the hurdles race shown with no sound except when a hurdle is knocked over), variety of expertly framed shots (looking out through the woods at cyclists or peering across what seems like miles at a pole-vaulter) and touching eye for detail (a news typist slipping off her shoes under the table, a spray of mud as a shot-put hits the earth in the dour rain, etc) make “Tokyo Olympiad” a masterpiece of nuance and artistic humanism.

Ichikawa’s patriotic bias is reduced to two shots of the rising sun: the flag which opens the film and the telephoto sunset at the intermission. Both shots are done artistically and seem to fit well. Ichikawa smartly directs the symbolism away from pure nationalism or war connotations and towards a sense of Japan reborn as a peaceful icon of progress; a daring graphic match transitions the red ball at the center of the opening flag into a wrecking ball as it destroys the run-down buildings where the stadium is to be built.

While discussion was taking place in Japan as to how to re-edit Ichikawa’s failure, the film was sent to Cannes where it was a resounding success. The Olympic committee changed its tune and released the film unchanged. It became the most successful film in Japan ever made up until that time.

Winner: Tokyo Olympiad


Patti said...

Haha, good idea, Brian. I've only seen parts of Riefenstahl's work, but I was curious to see the rest - and now also Ichikawa's too.

Molly said...

What a great analysis. I had archive class all day today, so please excuse the following rant: Like that Japanese Olympics committee, so many people fail to see documentary material as anything other than news where only the big events and final results are important. Even some film archives, especially commercial ones, junk or ignore the kind of human, intermediary material where, from what you say, Ichikawa seems to have found so much life. There is actually a problem in regional archives - they look for footage of the area but find that people kept coverage of obviously important national events but let footage of the local community slip away. To a historical documents as well as a work of art, the bits in between can be just as important.

Mad Dog said...

Wow, count me among the people that didn’t know there could be an artistic side to sports documenting. :P

Obviously I’ve never seen either film, but the way you described Ichikawa’s made me very interested in seeing what he came up with. For someone that really wouldn’t care less about the statistics of the events, I think it was a good move to try to find the human stories that dwell in these sorts of subjects, even though that sort of reporting has become rather crass as of late, with reporters going to great lengths to make sure the audience knows how amazing it is that this one-legged polio survivor is running the race in memory of his dead father who was also his coach.

What you said about looking at the losers as much or more than the winners also intrigued me. It seems like there’d be so much more to look at in someone that lost rather than the simple joy of winning, even if they’d been working towards it for most of their life. But maybe that’s the pessimist in me talking.

FilmWalrus said...

Thank you for all the thoughtful replies!

I think both are worth checking out even though I declared Ichikawa's the winner. They both have historical importance and artistic merit. Famed French documentariest Chris Marker debuted with a short film he made at the 1952 winter Olympics and it too is supposed to be good but it is very rare. I haven't seen it myself.

exactly why:
You have a very valid rant. It is sad that docs get short shrifted so often. I myself am guilty of giving preference to fiction films especially when it comes to laying down hard cash. I have so many gaps in my doc education to fill in. I also have much to say about how to rate/review documentaries but that's a post for another time.

As for the little details of life and local flavor, I tend to like that in documentaries too. Unlike the ubiquitous Paulettes (Ebert, Armond White, etc) I'm not a fanatic humanist but I like it when it's done well ("Forbidden Games" for instance). Alternatively, I also love the cold formalism of directors like Kubrick and Greenaway. This should probably also be a different post. Anyway, thanks for your heartfelt response!

Mad Dog:
You make an excellent point about the combination of commercialization and the sentimentalizing of the Olympics. Something about the slick editing and cookie-cutter format employed at the last few have really drained the intimate lives of the athletes of their emotional effect. Every story gets turned into a Lifetime special complete with music cues. Talk about saturation. Several critics have pointed out that it is probably not possible to ever have another work like Riefenstahl's or Ichikawa's. It's sad but likely true.

Molly said...

To be perfectly honest, I tend to prefer fiction films, too. But I've been dealing with regional film archives over here, which have very little fictional material. They're all full of home movies and local news and hundred year old films of city streets and town pageants. I think it's really increased my appreciation of the sorts of movies that aren't strictly entertainment.

I only wish I'd seen enough films to have a proper discussion with you on documentary style.