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.
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.
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.