Ski Bums


After enjoying SMILE so much, I resolved to watch more Michael Ritchie movies — he seemed kind of like a benign Altman. It took me a while, but I finally ran DOWNHILL RACER (1969), a movie I remember being on TV when I was a kid. I could never get into it then, and it’s obvious why when I look at it now. It’s mostly non-verbal; it doesn’t reinforce its visual moments with talk; the characters emerge very slowly; hardly anything is stated overtly; none of the characters is ingratiating. These aren’t narrative tactics calculated to appeal to a kid. Plus it was about sport, and I hate sport. But I now take the view that what a film is about, its surface subject, is irrelevant to its quality, so I watch war films and sports films if they seem interesting, despite my distaste for those particular forms of competitive activity.

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I also remember an interview where Bill Forsyth said that all stars have their self-imposed limitations, and the example he used was Robert Redford, who had never played an unsympathetic part. Well, I frequently find Redford unsympathetic but I realize I’m not meant to. But I would hold DOWNHILL RACER up as an example of RR playing a character mostly defined by negative qualities: he’s arrogant, anti-social, a dangerous driver, not a team player. He’s not a villain or even an anti-hero, he’s just a protagonist with few attractive qualities. The movie succeeds in fairly minimalist ways — we are minimally bothered about whether Redford’s pompous¬†skier will take home the gold, but we’re sort of intrigued about what sort of a journey he’ll go on as a person, since there’s no shortage of pressure on him to reform his ways.

The lack of talk is really striking — much of what’s said is just chatter, especially that engaged in by sports commentators and journalists. The skiers exchange meaningless pleasantries. Redford fails to bond. It’s over an hour before anyone makes an actual speech. The honour falls to coach Gene Hackman. Via the DVD extras we learn that editor Richard A. Harris deliberately included some of Hackman’s slight line flubs, to emphasise the character’s emotion and to maintain the documentary realism achieved elsewhere by Ritchie in the ski footage.

The skiing is great — it is actually one of the sports I find less offensive. It happens amid pleasant scenery and it doesn’t make a lot of horrible noise, though the commentators do. Almost every other sport occurs in a horrible environment or is very loud, often both. Here, they’ve dispensed with the shonky rear projection which plagued such sequences in older movies (and some later ones, shamefully) and they have the kind of spectacular crashes which you often see on TV sports coverage but which rarely figure in movies, because movies can’t afford to break too many legs. Here, Ritchie filmed the actual races, and whenever there was a particularly painful and flamboyant tumble, they would make sure they costumed one of their actors in matching duds so they could work the sprawling athlete into their narrative.

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Ritchie understands that each skiing sequence needs to be different (as each fight is subtly different in RAGING BULL) to avoid ennui. He holds back on the amazing POV shots (wide-angle lens footage taken by their lead skier, tips of his skis in shot, snow rushing past at such velocity that by the time an ordinary mortal like you or I have taken in an onrushing bump, or a snowman, or a tree, or a small child, we would have skied right through it.

Harris cuts together really snazzy montages of preparation, too, giant closeups of tiny fastenings being adjusted, and the sound design has all these tinny tink, pting, klick sounds, which, spread apart with very soft wind underneath, create a kind of abstract, low-key suspense that’s somehow more deeply worrying than the bombastic kind (Harris also cut for James Cameron up to TITANIC).

Really nice work — pure cinema, seventies style, before the seventies had actually started. I guess in that decade, things might have ended more darkly, but the WAY in which Redford achieves his inevitable victory is really neat, and pretty dark too.

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17 Responses to “Ski Bums”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    Never did see DOWNHILL RACER, although I remember a Kael review where she referred to Sparv as a performer who works better in still photos than in motion.

    But I do think that Redford’s INSIDE DAISY CLOVER character was unsympathetic — that is to say, opaque and less than warm.

  2. He annoys me some of the time in BAREFOOT IN THE PARK. I mean he’s not evil, but he’s a stuffed prig. And he plays that very well.

  3. Roman Polanski, a humungous skiing enthusiast, was originally set to direct “Downhill Racer.” But then Robert Evans showed him the page proofs of an about to be published novel called “Rosemary’s Baby” — and the rest is history.

  4. Redford is opaque in The Way We Were too. Babs supplies the warmth.

  5. It may be that our idea of attractive qualities in a leading man have shifted slightly, so that Redford has acquired a darker gleam. Many tough guy leading men of earlier eras seem positively cro-magnon today — Redford’s more quiet-spoken style is maybe starting to look sort of passive-aggressive.

    Sparv is good in this, but it’s a trophy girlfriend role, not something that would really stretch an actor. I think she looks amazing, but we don’t learn much about her.

  6. henryholland666 Says:

    I love sports, despite the seeming handicap of my homosexuality. I have since I first encountered a baseball game as a 6 year old in 1966.

    “Almost every other sport occurs in a horrible environment or is very loud, often both”

    What “horrible environments”? I can go to a baseball or football (either kind) or hockey or basketball game and be in pristine arenas with plentiful choices of beer and food and toilets. If you’re talking about the fans, well, it depends.

    I would never go to a Rangers v. Celtic match, for example, solely because both fanbases are clinically insane as they use the footie to play out their dreary sectarian issues, but here in the US, going to a game is not really different than going to a movie, it’s entertainment.

    As for the noise, I love it. It was great walking through a tunnel at Old Trafford for a Man U v. Chelsea FA Cup match and hearing the 75,000 people in that great stadium chanting and singing their lungs out.

    I’ve had incredible experiences being part of a sports crowd. One of them was at the 1984 Olympics here in Los Angeles, to be in Pauley Pavilion when the US men won the overall gymnastics title was mind-blowing.

    Mileage may vary, of course.

    As for “Downhill Racer”, I like it a lot, especially the fact that Redford’s character is an unrepentant arsehole, no mythologizing him.

  7. On one of the various DVD extras Criterion generously provided, a skier says that really successful sportsmen tend to have a bit of nastiness to them and he liked Redford’s characterisation for that reason.

    Football stadiums depress me architecturally. And I’m slightly phobic about noise, or at any rate it distresses me.

  8. henryholland666 Says:

    If you’re “slightly phobic about noise”, does that include music or just loud crowds?

  9. I can’t stand rock concert levels of music, clubs etc. I get a claustrophobic response to those places. Music is usually fine otherwise. Bus brakes are a problem but they don’t last.

  10. Fiona here – and hoovers. He doesn’t like those. I don’t think he’s ‘phobic’ about noise, I just think he’s hypersensitive and has a low tolerance for loud noises and too much sensory information causes overload. http://www.hyperacusis.net/hyperacusis/4+types+of+sound+sensitivity/default.asp

  11. Howard Curtis Says:

    Interesting to note that the screenplay of Downhill Racer was by the great American novelist James Salter. In his autobiography Burning the Days (highly recommended), Salter devotes several pages to his work on the project, and offers some fascinating glimpses of both the young Redford and the young Polanski (who was indeed slated to direct this as his first American film until Rosemary’s Baby came along).

  12. What’s so interesting is that the script works with so few conversations and so little explanation. Not what we think of as “literary,” though of course novelists deal with behaviour and action too…

  13. John Seal Says:

    I’m a big fan of Smile, but hated Downhill Racer when I first saw it lo those many years ago. By coincidence, I revisited it myself last week…and still hated it. Boring, with bland characters I found completely uninteresting. I won’t be coming back for a third visit (unless the after life features free streaming movies on demand – and even then it’d be a push).

  14. They’re very different. The Smile characters are chatty, colourful, a little grotesque in some cases, lovable in others. Downhill Racer is more minimalist and Melvillean in its approach to character — you have to infer most of the emotion, most of the inner life, most of the personality. And one man’s Melvillean minimalism is another man’s bland boredom.

    (I’m not accusing you of not appreciating Melville, BTW.)

  15. John Seal Says:

    Jean-Pierre or Herman? They both have their boring bits. (if the former, I greatly admire Army of Shadows.)

  16. That’s my favourite too! The thrillers may have boring bits, but they have realy nice bits too. Not so much thrilling in the sense of creating tension, but as cinematic expressions of beauty.

  17. […] be a DVD somewhere. I’d suggest an Eclipse box set to compliment Criterion’s excellent DOWNHILL RACER — “Winning and Losing with Michael Ritchie” — it could have SMILE, THE […]

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