Lost in the Movies: The Olympic Films, part 1 of 7: Summer 2021 (broadcast) / 2016 / 2012 / 2008 & Winter 1924 / 1928 / 1936 (+ 1932 bonus)

The Olympic Films, part 1 of 7: Summer 2021 (broadcast) / 2016 / 2012 / 2008 & Winter 1924 / 1928 / 1936 (+ 1932 bonus)

for the introduction & line-up of monthly capsules
running from August 2021 to February 2022

Summer 2021 in Tokyo, Japan

While I'd been considering this Olympic series for years, the "2020 Olympics" turned out to be, rather grimly, the perfect start date - precisely because they weren't actually held in 2020 thanks to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. This is one of many times world events have intervened in the ostensibly peaceful bubble of the international games (one of their most fascinating paradoxes). The Olympics had been cancelled before, three times in fact (1916, 1940, and 1944) due to two world wars. (Oddly enough, the Olympics were already scheduled to be hosted by Axis countries during those latter two years with Japan and Italy following third Axis partner Germany's 1936 games.) This time, however, the event was postponed rather than cancelled and the fact that it was eventually held at all was considered a triumph. How did it turn out for host country Japan? Well, new Covid cases soared to unprecedented heights but deaths remain relatively low, probably a tribute to the efficacy of the vaccine (about a third of the Japanese population is vaccinated). The stadium was full of empty seats and athletes, commentators, staffers, and others were mostly masked when not directly participating in competition, stamping these Olympics with a distinct iconography that will mark it for all future generations. The opening and closing ceremonies, while frequently minimalist in a quintessentially Japanese sense (if occasionally hyperactive in an also quintessentially Japanese sense), more generally reflected the eerie isolation and austerity of the Covid era.

The grand ceremonies surrounding the Olympics were also touched by the times in a different manner, as at least four creative consultants, including the composer of the Olympic theme and director of the opening ceremony were "cancelled" for past transgressions (including a Holocaust joke in the nineties, a subject which the Olympic committee may have reason to be particularly skittish about given its own history). What this actually means in practice is hard to determine given that the director was removed from his position just days, even hours, before the ceremony...obviously they were going to use his material anyway rather than come up with a last-second revision, so what exactly was the meaning of this symbolic gesture? Social issues were also relevant directly on the field with the first openly Olympian transgender athletes in competition - one of whom, Quinn, won a gold medal. And the Games' biggest star going in, gymnast Simon Biles, unleashed an outpouring of support and a firestorm of controversy when she withdrew from the team competition, citing mental health concerns that would negatively impact her performance and well-being (as well as her team's standing, an aspect that got lost in much of the surrounding discourse). The U.S.'s biggest victor in Biles' partial absence (she later returned for a solo event and won a Bronze) was Caeleb Dressel with five gold medals and a new Olympic record in swimming; his family cheered him on from Florida via a patched-in video feed, another sign of the times.

Of course, there is no official Olympic film yet for 2021 though director Naomi Kawase will have an obvious uniting theme with which to assemble her material. Some of that footage did appear near the end of the broadcast, the close-ups, slow motion, and unusual angles making an obvious contrast with the more straightforward standards of live coverage we're used to when we watch the Olympics unfold. As other distinctions collapse - Olympic films are now far more likely to be streamed or televised than viewed in a theater, and both the TV broadcast and documentary film are photographed in HD rather than low-grade video vs. high-grade 35mm film - this aesthetic divide remains, lending value to what might otherwise seem a more fruitless gesture. I look forward to revisiting Olympics I watched as they unfolded in this new format, along with Olympics I was too young (mostly, not even born yet) to see at all. There is also no way for most live viewers to be as selective as a filmmaker reflecting back on the event, so I'll also be able to get a more sweeping, birds' eye view of the games via these films. In 2021, I caught random moments as well as actively seeking out a few (I really wanted to see the first-ever surfing championship, won by - among others - young Hawaiian Carissa Moore, although I ended up having to settle for highlights). Eventually I'll be able to view these too as part of a grander, more organized narrative but not until after this series is complete, just a few months afterwards if it stays on schedule.

For now, although I'll be alternating seasons and years for the most part, we are going to begin this journey by sliding back just a half-decade to another summer Olympics, caught in the whirlwind of its own political and cultural turmoil...

Days of Truce, dir. Breno Silveira
Summer 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Days of Truce opens with that turmoil and gestures toward the anti-corruption protests, economic and ecological crises, and political shakeup in its own title, which also calls back to the tradition of the "Olympic truce" during the ancient Greek games in which conflicts would cease for a week before and a week after the event. The film even ends on an optimistic note, with the open-ended question of what Rio's future holds after this tumultuous summer, and the implication that perhaps the Olympics restored Brazilian confidence. Of course, even the filmmakers knew this was something of a gloss. Within ten days of the closing ceremony, President Dilma Rouseff's eight-month impeachment process ended with her removal from office, with one of the deciding votes cast by a brash far right figure named Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer with fascist sympathies who dedicated his vote to the people who had literally tortured the soon-to-beformer president (she was a left-wing activist in the eighties). Within two years, another ex-president, the popular Lula de Silva, would be arrested, convicted, imprisoned and barred from running again on spurious, later overturned, grounds and Bolsonaro himself would become Brazil's lightning-rod leader through the years of Covid and continued social strife.

This certainly casts a pall over the documentary's overall arc, as narrated in a rather too placid, polished voiceover, although to be fair Silveira does spend plenty of time dwelling on the international narrative of Rio's struggles and frequently dips into the impoverished favelas, out of which several of the top athletes emerged. Rafaela Silva is perhaps the most memorable of these, a judo champion disappointed in 2012 to the point of nearly quitting the sport altogether until a coach asked her if she wanted to win a medal when the games came to her home country four years later, or sit at home and watch her event on TV. She goes on to win a gold medal, of course. By contrast, the film also emphasizes the journey of Fabiana Moreas who takes inspiration from Usain Bolt in a cell phone video where he encourages her to push herself even harder. Unfortunately, she does not even qualify to participate in the main event and broods over why her "all" was not really enough. In what I'm sure will emerge as a pattern moving back through these films, Days of Truce details the agony of defeat as well as the the thrill of victory (in the latter category, we glimpse superstar Michael Phelps collecting four golds in his last Olympic appearance while Simone Biles achieves superstardom with four golds in her first Olympic appearance).

One of the film's central threads is the assembly of the first-ever refugee team, reflecting perhaps the central international story of the time (ISIS threats and the Zika virus also get mentions), and a Muslim woman in a hijab that is covered by her American flag is interviewed about her complicated identity. Meanwhile, the restless discontent of the Brazilian populace itself brews on the margins, reminding us that a period which at times has been re-cast as the calm before the storm was more like a crest of the wave. In that sense, a backlash rather than a truce was on the horizon. There is an angry, unpredictable, but at times potentially liberatory energy to the zeitgeist captured onscreen, which I recall from the time these Olympics aired (this was also the summer of Brexit and in the U.S., we were several weeks past Bernie's defeat and several month shy of Trump's victory). Against this backdrop, both the timelessness of the Olympics and its momentary snapshot quality strike me as particularly poignant. There's nothing quite like re-visiting a time just out of reach, close enough to feel fresh but far enough away to feel gone forever so that the good and bad collapse together into a singularly bittersweet sensation.

The Olympic Games Held at Chamonix in 1924, dir. Jean de Rovera
Winter 1924 in Chamonix, France

On the other end of the spectrum, virtually all viewers of this first Winter Olympics film will have no memory of the event or its time period, and literally everyone onscreen has long since passed away (unless a few of the kids we glimpse in this French village lived to be among the handful of supercentenarians in 2021). We aren't just swapping out the lush green Sugarloaf for the snowy Alps, or the truly global spirit of Rio for the rather more insular sixteen countries of Chamonix (all European except for the U.S. and Canada, with the recently defeated Germany explicitly prohibited and the fairly new USSR, which most of these countries had invaded just a few years earlier, conspicuously absent). We are juxtaposing radically different periods and the film aesthetics which go with them. The Roaring Twenties are in full swing and "the Great War" a vivid living memory for all the participants - I wonder how many of these athletes, who look as if they are at least into their mid-twenties, were veterans? De Rovera's documentary approach incorporates many wide shots from a spectator's standpoint, straightforwardly explanatory intertitles, and the occasional "display" shot such as when a hockey puck, described as a flat ball to use on the ice, is held still in front of the lens. But Chamonix also utilizes unique angles (particularly during the ski jumps) and lyrical slow motion; in a sense, these early films had to pull double duty as not just poetic meditations upon the games but also a visual record since TV coverage was still decades in the future.

One of the charms of this movie when viewed nearly a century later is observing how the sports themselves have changed. The figure skaters, clad in long dresses that encumber their movements, have a simpler, more purely technical approach; ski-jumpers flap their arms wildly in the air like birds trying to take flight; and most obviously, the bobsled - or rather "bobsleigh" as it was known at the time - is a more rickety-looking contraption, more open than its aerodynamic successors and I'm, sure, much slower (though that doesn't stop one unlucky participant from breaking both legs). Despite the occasional violence, the film mostly has a peaceful air. There is no historical context provided - we bring that to the film ourselves - nor any real human interest: biography, psychology, and even mythology are brushed aside or left to the imagination. (Peter Cowie, whose "liner notes" to the Criterion editions I'll be reading after watching most of the upcoming entries, contrasts this disinterest in the mythology of athletics with Leni Riefenstahl's approach once Germany would not only be allowed back in the games, but invited to host them.) And of course there is no sound aside from Donald Sosin's 2017 score, itself an intervention that frames this footage from the future. Our first winter film is a silent and black-and-white one, in contrast to the giddy cacophony and bursting colors of Rio. This seems appropriate not just for the years and locations but for the seasons themselves.

First, dir. Caroline Rowland
Summer 2012 in London, England (UK)

This is the last film featured in the Criterion set; the Rio documentary was released that same year, and anyway the concept was "100 Years of Olympic Films", with the London Olympics perfectly punctuating a collection that begins in 1912. These games provide an appropriate ending in other ways too - particularly through design elements, from the lavish Danny Boyle-directed opening and closing ceremonies to the sleek curves and stark white aesthetics of Rod Sheard's Olympic Stadium or Zaha Hadid's London Aquatics Center. It's as if the Olympics are unfolding inside giant Apple devices. Watching Qiu Bo stand atop the broad platform against the THX 1138-style ceilings above him (before leaping into the air and spinning like a near-abstraction), we experience the sensation that we are gazing about as far into the future as humanly possible, with the controversy of Sochi, the turmoil of Rio, the breakthrough of PyeongChang, and the desolation of Tokyo mere postscripts unfolding after the most idealized form of the Olympiad reached its zenith. In this, the event - and certainly the film which captures it - represent a moment of confident triumphalism...odd when you consider the economic crisis just four years past, with a shaky recovery exacerbating inequality and exposing all sorts of social fissures that only deepened as the decade wore on. For whatever reason, however, early teens media adapted a chic confidence, expressed here by the dreamy telephoto abstractions that Rowland favors and the sometimes tiring cascade of pop songs straining for exuberance.

However, she also anchors the movie in portraits of young athletes from frequently impoverished, abusive, or otherwise difficult origins. Indeed, London is very much the backdrop for this drama rather than a character itself (quite distinct from how Days of Truce incorporates Rio, for example) - war-torn streets in Kosovo, rural roads in Kenya, and graffiti-laced buildings in the Bronx are dwelt upon more than the shiny metropolis where these competitors converge. Often their stories end in bitter disappointment, although they and Rowland try to strike redemptive notes. (Some will find redemption later: the absolutely crestfallen judoka Majlinda Kelmendi, shown unable to even stand up following her defeat in the second round, not only returned to win gold in 2016 but did so as a representative of the brand new Kosovo team after having to declare herself Albanian in 2012.) First's title is, cleverly, both ironic - since many of these athletes finish far from first - and descriptive - since Rowland focuses on individuals entering their first-ever Olympics.

Along the way, of course, she nods to the returning superstars of the games, particularly Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt (both of whom we already spent time with in their also victorious Rio appearances). It's striking to watch both in their prime knowing that they are now retired, an acknowledgement of time's passage which undercuts First's futuristic air. Even Missy Franklin, the fresh-faced teenager setting world records for the U.S. swim team in London, has now moved on from the sport (after years of shoulder injuries that led her to stop swimming competitively in 2018, she sat out Tokyo this August to welcome her first child instead). Criterion's 100-year framework is already nearly a decade in the past; all glory is fleeting.

The White Stadium, dir. Arnold Fanck & Othmar Gurtner
Winter 1928 in St. Moritz, Switzerland

A series of Swiss townspeople - or more likely wealthy tourists - parade through a small shop in the glitzy resort of St. Moritz. As they gaze in the mirror, and the camera closes in on their feet, they transform. Ordinary shoes become skates or cleats; pant legs morph into hockey pads; skis, woolen hats, and other athletic gear (or what passes for athletic gear in this more formal era) emerge as attachments and the customers cheerfully exit onto the street. This is perhaps the most whimsical passage in the film - other than a jaunt with half-nude tourists on skis - but indicative of a larger approach which pauses for extended natural poetry and stylistic flourishes: rapid montage, moving cameras, silhouettes in the stark valley light. Early on, as we track alongside trains full of spectators and arriving athletes, I was reminded of the visual texture of Berlin: Symphony of a City, only to discover afterwards that The White Stadium was edited by Berlin's director Walter Ruttmann just a year earlier. The film also features glimpses of cinema's near future, indeed of Olympic cinema's near future, when it shows none other than Leni Riefenstahl being pulled around on her skis by a horse. Fanck and Riefenstahl, still an actress at the time, would soon collaborate on a series of "mountain" movies focusing on the awe-inspiring landscape he captures here (The Hell of Piz Palu, a climbing adventure released a year later, even unfolds in this exact range). The biggest future superstar in The White Stadium - already beginning to shine internationally - is the teenage Sonja Henie, grinning ear to ear as she executes flawless figures which the filmmakers capture in dazzling slow motion.

This second and final silent winter documentary is far more fluid, experimental, and impressionistic than the first, very much in the spirit of its time. These were the years when Sunrise, Metropolis, October, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Man with a Movie Camera, and other great works allowed the art of cinema to fully flourish even as the anchor of sound equipment entered stage left to bring this technique crashing down to earth. Of course, Winter Olympics films, as outdoor sports documentaries, are already in a different category than studio pictures or even in-the-street portraits like Man with a Movie Camera. They don't necessarily need sound to do their job (and to the extent it helps, effects can be added later). So perhaps the arrival of new technology won't have the same impact. Nonetheless, these films are also part of a broader culture and Fanck and Gurtner are clearly drawing influence from that late silent era flowering with their work. While it soars as artsy film experiment, The White Stadium sometimes struggles with basic sports coverage; its solutions to practical problems are often clever and creative but not as effective as the tools live broadcasters would develop in time (even as this film has the advantage of editing down the footage) - or that later Olympic films would refine into effective highlight reels. Repeat cuts to a stopwatch defuse rather than raise the tension among competing bobsleighers; the duration of cross-country skiing swallows up in an inordinate amount of screentime; and a brutal routing of the Swiss hockey team by the Canadians becomes numbing, conveyed by similar shots of a desperate goalkeeper and a static scoreboard in which only the top number card changes.

+ bonus: Winter 1932 in Lake Placid, New York (USA)

No film exists of either '32 event but there are more newsreels and other clips for the summer games in L.A. than the winter ones in upstate New York. Still, a few videos are floating around on YouTube, some with the hardy early thirties announcer voice describing what we see (including good-time NYC mayor Jimmy Walker keeping warm by flapping his arms), others just silent footage with superimposed timestamps from various archives. Henie is glimpsed in another triumph - moving so fast that she blurs in with the splotches on smudges on the film stock. A new two-man bobsled flies through a wooded track (this location is much more cluttered, with houses and roads as well as trees and hills, than the French or Swiss spots), and an American speedskating champ collapses at the finish line, with others whizzing around him to avoid a further collision. And oh, the Canadians trounce their opposition once again in hockey. The longest clip collection begins with then-Governor Franklin Roosevelt greeting the foreign visitors in the opening parade, including Germans and Japanese against whom he would be leading the war effort within a decade.

The Everlasting Flame, dir. Gu Jun
Summer 2008 in Beijing, China

Peter Cowie writes that "the human face and figure assume prime importance in Gu's approach to the Games," an apt observation that captures a certain humility unusual given this grandiose subject. The Everlasting Flame is, in a sense, a sequel. Gu's seven-year-long project Dream Weaver traces the entire long lead-up to the event through largescale preparations as well as individual athletes' rigorous training (though I won't be watching the documentary as part of this series, it's on YouTube and I'm definitely curious to check it out). This follow-up is largely structured around the outcomes for these competitors, and many are deeply disappointing (if also occasionally inspiring) - especially after an introductory section setting up their dreams. A hurdler's and weightlifter's injuries are repeatedly resisted to no avail; gymnasts, pole-vaulters, and tae kwon do fighters break down when they falter; a BMX biker crashes into a barrier and then bravely pedals to the finish line anyway; a canoeist collapses and has to be carried off in a stretcher (at which point the film departs onto a long side-plot about his Polish grandparents and absent mother). In one sequence, Gu even pivots instantaneously between joyous and despairing swimmers as they check their score above. Such winners-and-losers-both variation is common in the summer films I've watched so far, but the balance seems unusually tilted toward the latter here even if often by happenstance. Following the biker closely for years, for example, Gu couldn't have foreseen his dramatic fate. Even the biggest superstar of The Everlasting Flame - Jamaican record-shatterer Usain Bolt, who leaps out of seemingly nowhere in this film to become the figure we've already followed in the subsequent documentaries - is explicitly juxtaposed to his countryman Asafa Powell, who enters Beijing the famous favorite and leaves a has-been. Powell's melancholy circumspection at a glitzy party speaks as loudly as Bolt's giddy dancing just a few feet away.

In contrast to Days of Truce and First, this film's vision of the summer games does not have a flashy, pronounced style, although upon reflection its more subtle stylization may be the most intriguing of the summer films I've seen. As with them - indeed, as with all of the films so far (winter or summer) - it's helmed by a director from the country depicted, although the British narrator suggests a removed, impartial air. There is nothing like Days of Truce's overt investment in Brazilian national pride - nor that film's exploration of Rio's real-time unrest - in Gu's more matter-of-fact vision. However, she does touch on these themes more indirectly, as in her montage of a mostly Chinese crowd's stunned reactions to hurdler Xiang Liu's injured exit after a false start (montages, slow-motion, and cutaways to past events are Gu's primary aesthetic gestures, employed judiciously for dramatic rather than impressionistic effect). She also focuses on a fellow director, Zhang Yimou, as he struggles with stubborn planners resistant to his concept for the Opening Ceremony. He wins out, resulting in a staggering spectacle praised as the greatest of its kind: colorful dancers create fluid displays depicting paper scrolls, movable type, and a ship guided across the waves by a compass, while gunpowder fuels firework displays above the city skyline in the shape of giant footprints approaching the stadium. I watched this film with my mother, who was so impressed by the beauty of the presentation that she was nearly moved to tears, and it truly is stunning in its rich colors and Busby Berkeley-esque coordination and conceptualization. This is a triumphant celebration of Chinese history and ingenuity (depicting four crucial inventions) as well as, implicitly, its current, rising prominence in a world just weeks away from an international financial crisis whose effects are still being felt today.

I recall this event being quite controversial at the time - and in the years leading up to it - with an international outcry given China's political system and approach to human rights...although it's striking to note both Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush in attendance. (No U.S. president has visited the games since, and Putin only appeared his own country's ceremony in 2014.) There were calls to boycott or protest Beijing, and comparisons were even made to the way the Olympics burnished Hitler's image in the thirties. I even remember being uncomfortable watching the broadcast at the time, and skipping out on that legendary opening only to hear others rave about it afterwards. This sort of good/bad Olympic host nation approach strikes me as mostly silly now (given many ostensible democracies' atrocious behavior and thinly-veiled elitism) but it's understandable why such concerns exist. This is especially true when we slide back seventy-two years to visit a ski town in a resurgent nation grasping hungrily at the chance for prestige and spectacle...

Youth of the World, dir. Carl Junghans
Winter 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

When looking for information on the Rio documentary, I came across a mostly scathing collective review of Olympic films (which I can't re-discover and attribute) dismissing Youth of the World as little more than pure Nazi propaganda, lacking even any value as a sports film. I wasn't sure what they meant, assuming that amidst the inevitable swastika flags and shots of a beaming Hitler, there would be the requisite coverage of various events. But in fact, this short (less than forty minutes) reduces most of its incidents to blitzkrieg montages and is far more interested in images that serve an aesthetic (if not ideologically iconographic) purpose than a narrative/documentary one. The skiing competitions are particularly hard to follow, with Junghans aggressively match-cutting between participants' bodies; if The White Stadium arguably lingered too long on the endurance test of long-distance cross-country, Youth of the World's approach is far too reductive. The film is more successful with the fast-paced bobsleigh runs, which are fascinating not just because of the speed but the apparent sloppiness of the track: sled after sled nearly crashes, while quite a few actually do spill over the edge. On the evidence of this footage, it seems like a miracle if there weren't any casualties. Junghans skillfully conveys the danger of these sports in a manner that renders flimsy human figures more comical than heroic, at least to my eyes - overall, the effect of his editing and framing becomes numbing, capturing the exhausting, breathless anti-humanism at the heart of National Socialism.

Was this...intentional? I doubt it, although Peter Cowie's write-up describes Junghans as holding "private Communist leanings," and further research reveals that his work was often dissatisfying to Goebbels - seen onscreen here next to the Fuhrer - and the Nazi brass (a film about the Spanish Civil War was censored and re-edited for its perceived sympathy for the leftists battling German allies). Preferring the center-right to the left after the war (a Wikipedia entry describes him as a supporter of Richard Nixon and the West German Christian Democrat Franz Josef Strauss) Junghans did align himself with enemies of the Third Reich during the war, fleeing first to France and then making his way to the U.S. via the infamous Casablanca route in the Occupation/Vichy era. On the other hand, he was the cinematographer for Leni Riefenstahl's more famous documentary Olympia later in 1936 and seems to have approached his work with a sincere enthusiasm for form that either glossed over or conveniently embraced the cheerfully kitschy Nazi ethos. Striking if repetitive and not particularly illuminating juxtapositions of ski jumpers with eagles may simply be associative, but they are malleable enough to serve as slightly ludicrous folkloric glorification. Throughout, the only sounds are postdubbed equipment scratches and audience cues that make the material play even more like parody. While undeniably inventive and even breathtaking in individual moments (like skiers slicing through the alpine mist or Sonja Henie once again whirling in slow motion), I was burned out by Youth of the World. Given its lack of interest in the human experience, even the casual, home movie interest of the earlier winter silents, if Junghans had intended to undermine the inhumanity of the Nazis via exaggeration then he couldn't have done a better job.

That's it for this month's round-up. In September, the summer films will move back into the twentieth century (Athens 2004, Sydney 2000, and Atlanta 1996) while the winter films will leap past the war (St. Moritz 1948, Oslo 1952, and Cortina d'Ampezzo 1956) - since the 1936 host country (along with its 1940- and 1944-scheduled allies) made the next two planned events impossible.

(This piece accidentally went up a hour and a half late as I didn't realize it was saved in draft mode while I went back to make some edits; 8am will continue to be my normal publication time.)

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