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It's a shame that so few documentaries are produced about the Olympic Games. The grandiose showmanship of the games' opening and closing ceremonies is amazing in itself. Riefenstahl's account of the 1936 Berlin meet is a cinematic masterwork and Kon Ichikawa's coverage of the 1964 meet Tokyo Olympiad is a breakthrough sports documentary that captures much more than the competition itself. When David Wolper commissioned eight international directors to contribute their personal takes on the 1972 Munich games for Visions of Eight, he was surely hoping something dramatic might occur. The games were instead marred by one of the most ugly terror crimes of the last century.
After an opening montage showing the lighting of the Olympic torch, the show separates into distinct chapters, each introduced with a photo montage of its filmmaker. A disclaimer has already reminded us that the docu is not a record of the games, but a selection of artistic interpretations, each built around a separate theme. The Beginning is a set-up piece by Juri (Yuri) Ozerov, a Soviet filmmaker who was also a Major in the KGB. A brief montage, it merely reminds us that the Olympic athletes must prepare to perform before thousands of people. Ozerov also makes the first mention of the murder of the Israeli team.
Swedish director Mai Zetterling's The Strongest regards the Olympic weightlifters as if they were giant monsters at work. These men seem in serious danger of injuring themselves, and one small accident does indeed look scary. Zetterling shows the burly champions chowing down on steaks before facing those enormous barbells. Which pot-bellied behemoth can do it? Part of the trick seems to be to achieve the correct mental state to even attempt the task. Zetterling is clearly impressed by these men, when she shows five German soldiers teaming to carry just one of the assembled barbells.
The Highest is directed by Arthur Penn and edited by Dede Allen. With no spoken introduction, we launch immediately into a slow-mo montage of pole-vaulters achieving what seem to be impossible jumping feats. Expert cinematography is on display as Penn and Allen weave a symphony of beautiful angles of vaulters in motion -- keyed up, happy, frustrated. The action is an adrenaline rush. Cameraman Walter Lassally uses purposely out of focus shots to impressive aesthetic effect.
German director Michael Pfleghar's segment is titled The Women, a category explained as "acknowledging their presence and contributions." Our expectations of a condescending piece vanish in a flurry of terrific faces of women competing and waiting to compete. Relaxed Henry Mancini music is put to good use, but less effective is a sequence showing female track stars backed by a "feminine" operatic aria. The gymnasts are doll-like super children, looking beautiful no matter how they contort their bodies. The emotions of winning and losing, and the strain of maximum physical exertion are the same for both sexes, yet every beaming medal winner suddenly seems a beauty queen.
Kon Ichikawa's The Fastest analyzes a single 100-meter dash with 34 cameras running at 96 frames per second. It's a motion study of runners in absolute concentration for ten fleeting seconds, focusing first on individuals and then the full line of runners. Most of Ichikawa's creative input would seem to have ended at the conceptual stage, making this segment the least emotional. Through a voiceover the director lets us know that he believes the race "represents modern human existence". The brief chapter burned over 20,000 feet of film.
More personally involved is Czech director Milos Forman, who turns The Decathlon into an oddball comedy piece. Interjecting shots of musicians and performers from Olympic venues, Forman makes it seem as if a bandleader is waiting for the cue of a shot put thrower to start his downbeat. Sprinters are contrasted with bosomy cowbell players, and raucous yodeling seems to heckle a runner knocking over hurdles. Discus throwers? Clog dancing! The Decathlon competitors racing from one exhausting task to the next are compared to an Olympics official who yawns as he steals a quick nap. The point of the parody isn't clear, except to say that director Forman is a mischievous scamp.
The Losers sees French director Claude Lelouch in fine form; his examination of competitors facing defeat isn't as grim as it sounds. These athletes have already proven themselves and need make no excuses, yet many understandably look as if their lives are over. We spend quite a bit of time with a boxer, apparently having lost on a judge's call, simmering in rage and denial. He eventually disrupts the awarding of medals. A losing wrestler is visibly distraught yet behaves well. A cyclist crashes and is perhaps injured. When horse jumpers tumble, we hold our breaths. These competitors are perfectly entitled to show their emotions when things go wrong; we just want to tell them how fantastic they are. One wrestler calls a time out due to a possible injury. A doctor bandages his injured knee, and he tries to fight some more.
John Schlesinger's elaborate The Longest is a study of the Marathon. The director expresses the lonely experience of the runners, who must concentrate on their roadwork and cannot take part in the fun of the Olympic village. Unlike the majority of the other segments, many of Schlesinger's camera angles are pre-planned. He employs crane shots and attempts filming from the subjective viewpoint of an isolated runner, noting the circus-like distractions along the Marathon route. The sensitive soundtrack mixes breathing and footfalls with electronic music by Brian Hodgson. A screeching noise accompanies a runner stopped by a painful cramp. We see "mental mirage" images of beer being poured and other pleasant things the runner could be doing.
Schlesinger's episode incorporates the tragic terror attack at Munich. We see the hateful famous shot of a Palestinian terrorist on a dormitory balcony, followed by news reports and banners demanding that the games be stopped.
The Marathon runners enter the stadium to finish, some falling about in pain like war survivors. The show ends with an emotionally wrenching reprise of the lost Israeli team entering the stadium from the first day's opening ceremonies. John Schlesinger's segment ties the entire Olympics '72 experience into a meaningful and memorable statement. The film won a 1974 Golden Globe for Best Documentary.
Olive Films' DVD of Visions of Eight is a good transfer of a docu filmed with the finest technology of its day. The bulk of the action is seen through telephoto lenses yet has few if any focus problems. One excellent slow-motion shot has a light leak, a red glare that only makes the footage seem more precious. Henry Mancini's musical accompaniment ranges from various marches to relaxing mood music.
The film's overall spirit is a refreshing alternative to the television coverage of our present-day Olympics. Commercially-oriented "scripting" promotes the games as a competition between nations, and concentrates disproportionate attention on marketable athlete-celebrities. Visions of Eight remains inspirational because it presents its athletes as humans, not superstars.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Visions of Eight rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.