DVDs for 11/17/09 – Downhill Racer, rebooting Star Trek and watching an even longer Watchmen

Downhill Racer (Criterion) is the feature debut of Michael Ritchie, the first project that frustrated actor and future movie star Robert Redford developed for himself and the first of Redford’s proposed trilogy about the meaning of “winning” in American culture. That’s what gives such a riveting perspective to what would otherwise be called a “sports movie”: Redford’s David Chappellet, the brash, self-involved hotshot on the American ski team, is less concerned with the beauty of the sport than the attention of victory and fame.

David Chappellet (Robert Redford) looks up to check his standing
David Chappellet (Robert Redford) looks up to check his standing

Directed from a script by novelist James Salter and shot on location on the European ski circuit (where the director and star incorporated ideas and opportunities into the film as they arose), Downhill Racer makes no bones about Chappellet’s fierce ambition or dismissive arrogance, but the downhill runs are shot and edited with a visceral quality that takes us off the sidelines and into the skier’s perspective. The screen goes silent but for the cut of skis slicing a track through the snow and whoosh of the crisp mountain air whipping by and the camera captures the run in long takes and full shots to study the integrity of the athlete’s movement and at times watches the rush through the skier’s eyes, to give is the rush, the focus and the intensity of the experience. The rest of the film reminds us of the industry behind the sport—raising money for the national team, traveling from one contest to another, negotiating for top draws (the earlier the pick, the fresher the snow pack) and managing the media—and the culture of fame. Redford’s matinee looks are more than just Hollywood casting in this context; the film never says it in so many words, but it’s clear that Chappellet’s popularity is as much for his good looks as for his success. The crowds love a handsome champion. Gene Hackman is the practical coach who doesn’t like Chappellet or his attitude but knows that his ambition is the team’s best chance for a win and sixties screen beauty Camilla Sparv is Chappellet’s counterpart, a ski company rep who treats romance with the same emotional disconnection that Chappellet treats everything else.

Criterion’s disc advertises itself as 1.85 but is actually adjusted to the TV widescreen standard of 1.77:1. The disc features two interview featurettes, each running about half an hour. “Redford and Salter” features new video interviews with Redford, who lays out the history of the film and his career and his determination to get it made in the face of studio resistance, and writer James Salter, who discusses the evolution of the script and how it changed during the filmmaking. “Coblenz, Harris, and Jalbert” features film editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as technical adviser and ski double. There are audio-only excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie, the archival promotional short How Fast? and a booklet with an essay by critic Todd McCarthy.

I’ll be writing about another essential release this week, Milestone’s excellent two-disc edition of Kent McKenzie’s The Exiles, as well as two features from Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday, in another post. As I’m personally involved in the former (I participate in the commentary with author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie and interview Alexie for a bonus audio supplement) and am friends with Shelton, director of the latter, I can hardly be objective. But I can and will be supportive of both releases in a separate piece. (Update: it’s now up and posted here.)

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‘The Candidate’ on TCM – 1971 politics as timely as ever

The Michael Ritchie / Robert Redford collaboration The Candidate plays on Turner Classic Movies in early September. My piece on the film just went up on the TCM website. Watching this 1972 film in light of the 2008 Presidential race was quite the eye-opener. I realized that, for all the clips I’d glimpsed over the years, I’d never sat down and watched the entire film. And seeing the way that the the race shaped the man who vowed he would never let the political process change his convictions or his message reminded of both Barack Obama and John McCain – Obama as the younger idealist facing the realities of electioneering and the momentum of the campaign machine that grinds on with or without him, McCain as the individualist remaking himself over into the paragon of the party message, even if it contradicts positions he’s fervently held for years.

Robert Redford: Vote McKay!
Vote McKay - The Better Way

The film plays on TCM on September 3. My piece is running now.

To give the film greater immediacy, Ritchie and Redford shot much of the film like a political documentary. Campaign stops and speeches made around the state were staged like actual rallies, with crowds of citizens cheering on his speeches (it’s been reported that some audiences believed that he really was running for office) and cameras filming it all as if it was a news event. To add to the verisimilitude, real local and national television news reporters appeared as themselves to comment upon the campaign (including a fictional editorial by the respected Howard K. Smith), and active politicians can be seen interacting with the fictional campaign. In one scene, Redford’s friend and former co-star Natalie Wood appears as herself.

The Candidate straddles the line between cynicism about the way election campaigns pander to the media and a frankness about the negotiations between the ideals of a candidate and the way he shapes his persona and message to get heard by the public and get votes in the election. What played as cynicism and satire then, however, is simply business as usual today, which is one of the reasons the film remains so prescient. The Candidate is set in the era of 16mm news cameras and one inch industrial videotapes, a time when there is no such thing as 24 hour news channels or viral Internet video. But while the tools and the news cycle have changed, the careful cultivation of message and image, the political doublespeak and opportunistic pandering is as contemporary as ever.

Read the complete essay here.