David Wolper is perhaps the best-known producer of documentaries in this country. He has been responsible for more than 400 of them—the result of his most formidable gift, which is not so much film making as his ability to sell ideas to others. He is an unprepossessing figure (his subordinates refer to him as "The Green Olive," because they think he rather resembles one), but when he begins to outline a project his voice becomes as keen and excited as a child's, his vision absorbs him, he rises up and down on his toes and he seems to expand before one's eyes.
In 1971 the then 43-year-old producer came up with the notion of photographing the 1972 Olympic Games through the camera lenses of a number of famous movie directors, giving each free rein to shoot a 10- to 12-minute minifilm on whatever aspect of the Games intrigued them. Wolper would then have the segments collected and spliced together into a feature film. Furthermore, he reasoned, why not select the directors from different countries so that the completed offering would be a filmic Olympiad in itself?
Wolper called Willi Daume, the president of the XXth Olympics, and described his project. Daume was fascinated. A few of his committeemen were upset at the idea of the film being awarded to a non-German since it is customary that the parent country provide its own film maker for the official Olympic documentary. However, Daume continued to support Wolper's presentation, realizing that classic film reportage, however personal, would not differ enough from daily television coverage to compete for worldwide attention. There had to be another approach.
The resulting film, called Visions of Eight, coordinated by producer Stan Margulies, has already appeared at the Cannes Film Festival and is to be released this week in theaters across the country. The contributing directors are Milos Forman from Czechoslovakia, Kon Ichikawa from Japan, Claude Lelouch from France, Juri Ozerov from the Soviet Union, Arthur Penn from the U.S.A., John Schlesinger from England, Mai Zetterling from Sweden and Michael Pfleghar from Germany. Originally, there were 10 film makers, but Italy's Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet) dropped out because of his objections to Rhodesia being expelled from the Games, and Ousman Sembene of Senegal, a self-taught novelist and film maker (Mandabi), got bogged down in his project, the fortunes of the Senegalese basketball team, and never completed his film. Federico Fellini, Italy's noted director (La Dolce Vita), was interested in the project at its conception and toyed with the idea of doing a segment on a small girl lost in the Olympic Village, reporting an afternoon of the Games as seen through her eyes, but other commitments kept him from Munich.
August 26, 1973
David Wolper gave his eight directors complete freedom to do what they wanted, a concession that must have given him pause on occasion. If Milos Forman had ever divulged his original idea for his vision, Wolper would have collapsed. Forman's intent was to find a symbol on which to focus his camera in which would be concentrated all the intensity, the years of training, the dedication, brought down to a single moment of commitment in the Olympics. And what did he pick? An expert rifleman's trigger finger. His plan was to spend the 12 minutes of his film on the slow squeeze of this finger; the process would be seen in close-up, filling the screen, with perhaps an occasional shift to a glimpse of the rifleman's eye squinting at some distant target.
Eventually, Forman discarded the idea as lacking in "dramatic values," and he began concentrating on finding an event in which the athlete did not utilize an object such as a rifle or a discus or a shot. "When athletes rely on a prop, like a pole or something to hold on to," he explained, "the object seems to suck up their emotion, to drain it from their face." He thought he might choose the high jump. "In that event the man is alone, suspended in midair—even his feet are not running—and his face shows his emotion."
Then, after seeing the German track and field championships a few months before the Olympics, he changed his mind yet again. "I sat enthralled by the decathlon—that two-day set of exertions climaxed by the 1,500-meter run. Such pain, such heroic efforts to overcome the limits of human physics."
Forman is a director known for his humor and gentle ironies (Taking Off, The Loves of a Blonde) and his vision of the Olympics is often puckish and startling, full of tricks and personal conceits. He is successful with an amalgam of music (both beer-hall and symphonic) as a supporting structure for the events of the decathlon—a device that in less skillful hands could be cloying and cute. His camera is a fine spy. It dwells on the officials and referees in their green blazers carrying their fold-up chairs and marching across the field in close-order formation. "They seemed like such drones," Forman explained. "Most of them are former athletes and it is sad to see how they have gone from being athletes to functionaries."
Arthur Penn, far-famed for his Bonnie and Clyde, also gave the producer fits. Originally, Penn hoped to film the saga of the American flyweight boxer Bobby Lee Hunter, who was being allowed out of jail to try out for the Olympic squad and was an odds-on favorite to land himself a position. Penn filmed nearly four hours on Hunter—his background, his grandfather's funeral, his life in prison. The sociological aspects of Hunter's life were of far more interest to Penn than his boxing career. In fact, Penn's intention was to limit the Olympic footage to just the one key punch that would decide the issue between Hunter and his opponent, using the Olympics, whatever the outcome, as a sort of dramatic punctuation to finish off a turbulent chapter in the athlete's life.
To Penn's despair (and presumably to David Wolper's relief, considering Penn's idea of using just a few seconds from Munich), the Hunter segment could not be resolved since the fighter lost a preliminary bout in the Olympic Trials and never made the team.
So Penn, with less than a month to decide, was suddenly without a subject. He felt like someone who had arrived in the waning moments of a basement bargain sale.
"Well, what's left?"
"You're awfully late."
"Yes. I know."
"There's canoeing. You can have that."
"The 1,500 meters. The pole vault. Volleyball. Bicycle racing. The triple jump."
"I'll take the pole vault."
Penn's vision of the pole vault will cause more controversy than anything else in Visions of Eight. For an agonizing number of minutes the screen remains out of focus and without sound; it is almost a sure bet that unknowing audiences will start whistling and stomping and screaming at the projectionist for not being on the job up in his booth. Through the fuzz of blurred color one can discern the run and then the rise of the vaulter, the bend of the pole, and it would seem that a twist of the focus knob would set everything right.
The blatantly subjective reason for this intentional obscurity is startling: Arthur Penn wished to reflect his own feelings when he first went down on the field among the pole vaulters—namely, that it was all a blur to him, the scene so new to his senses that he could not perceive the event. It was, he admits, "a simple-minded response," but one he thought he should reflect on film. Only after watching for some time did the particulars of the event begin to come into focus, and the sounds become familiar—the scamper of feet down the runway, the thud of the pole into the box and the puff of the athlete's body landing in the foam-rubber pit, the latter the first sound the audience hears.
Had the producers tried to get him to change the beginning? "Oh my, yes," Penn reported. "Frequent, if very polite, pleas—rather like the drip of a water torture—in which both the sacred person of the audience and the projectionist were often invoked. But I was firm about it. Besides, I had another notion, that it was by no means a crime to make the audience feel uncomfortable in order to shake them up slightly and alter their perceptions."
Penn has done a lot to surprise his viewers. Nothing in his film is shot at normal speed. The slow-moving silhouettes of vaulters floating against the sunlight were taken by a Milliken 16-mm. medical-industrial camera that shoots 600 frames per second. There is a curious aquatic feeling to Penn's film, much of it seemingly shot in the late-evening shadows, with the vaulters rising up against the light as if toward the surface of a pond.
Penn never got to know much about his subjects. "They're like thoroughbreds," he explained, "terribly nervous and distracted. Pole vaulters are allowed three minutes before they must take off down the runway. They go through extraordinary totemistic behavior—a sense of ritual and procedures, and a near obscene relationship with their poles. All of that fascinated me—how they got themselves psyched up and prepared. I began to envy Ozerov, the Russian film maker who selected the subject of starts for his 'vision.' "
Juri Ozerov would not have seemed a logical choice to film the subtleties of individual athletes preparing themselves for an event. A portly Russian director, he is best known for the vast scale of such epics as The Great Battle, a reconstruction of the Nazi-Soviet tank engagements at Kursk in 1943. Indeed, he had wanted to do the massive champions of his own country, the weight lifters, a group that had already been preempted by Mai Zetterling. He shrugged and accepted David Wolper's suggestion that he try "starts." "The Beginning," he said with a sly wink suggesting he was thinking more of romantic attachments than film projects, "is the most interesting moment of any enterprise."
Logically, Ozerov's segment on starts opens Visions of Eight—a series of individual shots, largely of limbering-up exercises, the quick jiggle of thigh muscles, an athlete from Malawi in the Olympic Village chapel, all of this building in a slow crescendo toward the moment of commitment, the settling of a track shoe into the starting block, the rise of haunches. At the starter's pistol Ozerov releases the tension in a long burst of action shots, so fast as to be almost subliminal, like flipping the pages of a photograph album of athletes in full action, and then, in an abrupt and brilliant change of pace, he lets us linger on the last page, a diver in a lovely slow-motion descent into the flat blue of the Olympic pool.
Ozerov's original wish may have been to film Olympic weight lifters, but he would hardly begrudge Mai Zetterling's success with that subject. Her lively and imaginative inspection of weight lifters will quite likely provoke the most enthusiasm for any of the visions. The first inclination of the former actress turned director (Loving Couples and Night Games) was to do a film on the women of the Games.
"It would have been the easiest thing for me to do," she said. "But a person must push beyond old categories and experiences and make it hard for himself, so that finally he achieves real insecurity and, with it, wisdom."
For inspiration, Zetterling looked at films of the Mexico City and Tokyo Olympics, and at Leni Riefenstahl's epic on the Berlin Olympics. "They affected me deeply," she said. "Especially the weight lifters. I knew nothing about them, and cared less, but as I watched the films I became intrigued by the apparent obsessions that motivate men to distort their bodies so. If a man sleeps for 12 hours a day, trains for nine and eats for three, he's got to be obsessed. There is no time for living. I asked one of the super heavyweight lifters if he had a girl friend and he replied there was no room to fit a girl in a bed because he was so big. And yet they are glamorous. There's the glamour of commitment. I'm happy I chose the topic."
Impressed (as were all the film makers) by the loneliness and isolation of the athlete, Zetterling lets her cameras linger in a vast exercise hall where the weight lifters are going through their daily calisthenics and warmups—each athlete utterly oblivious of the other, as apart as a collection of mechanical toys wound up and set loose on the carpet. The sound track is a mélange of puffs and grunts, the crash of barbells to the floor, and in the background, to add to the sense of the impersonal, the voices of Olympic officialdom drone on in Germanic detail such specifics that during the Games the athletes will consume 1.1 million eggs, 120,000 pieces of toast, 27,000 kilos of veal.
Contrasts and ironies fill the Zetterling segment: a long shot of an exercising weight lifter from the flyweight division squat-jumping up a broad stair, like a chimp discovered in a palace; a musician's finger manipulating the valve of a French horn in contrast to the vast muscular expenditure required of the athletes. In the arena a weight lifter from Great Britain, wearing white suspenders, gets ready. He strides around, never looking at the enormous inanimate object in the center of the stage; his pace increases, his breath puffs; he steps abruptly to the absurdly large set of barbells, tugs them to his knees and then drops them with a crash; a haunted and somewhat resigned look crosses his face as if the futility of competing against gravity were suddenly realized. He is led away. The iron sits smug and fat on the floor.
The topic of "women" that Mai Zetterling discarded is capably taken over by Germany's Michael Pfleghar (The Death of Beverly Hills), who has a considerable reputation as a ladies' man. In his vision a gentler and more joyous spirit exists, with little of the grim demeanor that typifies the world of the male athlete. The women athletes talk to each other; they wear love beads, bandannas; the losers sob briefly, smile, and congratulate the winners. Their beauty stuns; the last moments of Pfleghar's segment show Ludmilla Turishcheva on the uneven bars—her movements in slow motion, precise, yet graceful, a hand turning on the bar as she revolves in midair, while behind her the great banks of spectators rising to the top of the arena begin to applaud in slow motion. She floats down to her dismount, her back arches, the arms are flung up, and her solemn urchin's face fills the screen.
Claude Lelouch, another expert on the female, who made the serene and lovely A Man and a Woman, picked "the losers" for his segment. His film runs the range of reaction—from the lengthy tantrums of a Spanish bantamweight who refuses to accept his loss and derisively applauds his opponent with boxing gloves that seem as huge at the end of his pipestem arms as mittens on a small child, to the quieter acceptance of swimmers hanging exhausted onto the end of the pool, barely enough strength left to slap petulantly at the water. Then they shove slowly off backwards, almost submerged, as if the element itself could soothe them.
Lelouch often equates losing with catastrophe—wrestlers grotesquely crippled by muscle pulls, a Japanese cyclist careening off the track, a series of spectacular steeplechase tumbles, including one photographed from ground level in which a horse fails to negotiate a ditch and in slow motion seems to be swallowed up by the earth until just his tail shows, floating slowly down behind him.
Kon Ichikawa, the Japanese film maker, relies completely on such techniques of slow motion, in his case to study the "fastest humans" of the 100-meter dash. In a tour de force he takes 34 cameras, most of them set up to catch the runners coming head on, and he uses 20,000 feet of film to slow the 10 seconds of the sprint down to six minutes of film time. The segment opens with a long roll of thunder that one realizes is the stretched-out sound of the starter's gun being fired.
Almost all the film makers were intrigued by the same sort of visual shots Ichikawa achieves in his segment: few of them, whatever subject they selected, could resist a head-on view, taken with a telescopic lens, of a runner moving through the shimmer of heat waves toward the camera, his speed slowed so far down that one sees on the screen what strain does to the human body, especially the face, where the cheeks and lips go slack and seem to flutter and flop loosely away from the bones and teeth. The eyes stare. What a shame that Ichikawa could not have filmed the U.S. sprinter Charlie Greene at Mexico City, who said he aimed himself down the lane and ran the 100-meter dash with his eyes squeezed shut.
It is a revealing, and somehow demeaning, sight to see human features in involuntary collapse due to the strain and effort of competition. The film makers noticed it in their cutting rooms, and these tortured faces appear and reappear throughout the segments of Visions of Eight like a macabre Leitmotiv in music.
Ichikawa is something of a pundit. Having filmed an Olympics before (the Tokyo Games), he unburdened himself of a somewhat formal observation about the athletes in Munich. "Regardless of whether it is considered to be a festival of peace for the human race, it is hardly an auspicious assembly of the gods. They can scarcely be of godly hearts or gifted minds. Even in the sacrosanct temple of the Olympics, through his skin, bones and flesh, man's ego rears its ugly head; more than that, it is displayed in unabashed nakedness."
The greatest and most horrifying example of human excess at the XXth Olympics was, of course, the Israeli massacre in the Olympic Village. It was left to John Schlesinger, the British director (Midnight Cowboy), to incorporate the tragedy in the concluding segment of Visions of Eight.
Schlesinger is a small, plumpish man with no interest in sports either as a spectator or a participant. But he was interested in Wolper's project and wanted to film what he felt was the most dramatically personal of the Olympic events, the marathon. He called up the British Amateur Athletic Association to find out that Ron Hill, a scientist working in the north of England on dye research, was the top marathon runner in the country. Schlesinger took his cameras up to Lancashire to film Hill through his lengthy training schedule. "I was interested in this," Schlesinger said, "because I consider myself fairly disciplined in my work and terribly undisciplined in my life, and I was fascinated that anybody could be so completely disciplined as to run to work every day, run in the lunch hour, run home after work, and every Sunday of his adult life run 20 miles over the hills of Lancashire. Of course, he was a totally humorless man, which might be expected of someone submitting himself to such rigid discipline. I'm bored by people like that, though I have grudging admiration for them.
"The nature of the film about Hill changed personally for me after the Israeli killings. I was sitting glued to the TV set in London. I was supposed to fly over the next day to get ready for the marathon. My feeling was that everything should be canceled. After thinking about it overnight, I felt the Games should go on, but not as if nothing had happened. The flags went back up from half-mast, except for the Israeli flag, with unseemly haste, bar-rong! All of this had a tremendous effect on me, much more than on the people sitting in the Olympic Village where the tragedy was happening. The athletes there amused themselves by playing chess, moving giant chess pieces on enormous squares. The power of communication is much stronger on those who are away from the event. I began to feel that I wanted to do my film about that, about the killings and the effect of it all, but on the phone David Wolper said absolutely not. So I told him that I didn't think I could come to Munich unless I could bring that situation in, though at the time I had no idea how to do it. Obviously, I would have preferred to go to Munich rather than to put a polite announcement in the London Times saying that I had withdrawn from the project for personal reasons. Then an associate of mine, James Clark, told me about Ron Hill's attitude during all this—that he was completely involved in his marathon coming up and thinking of nothing else. Well, I thought, that's the answer, that's the tack we'll take, the irony of this athlete against a background of helicopter sounds and sirens completely dismissing this terrible event.
"Hill was quite articulate about it, and certainly horrifyingly frank. "It's affected me,' he told me, 'in that the tragedy has put off my race for a day. If I allowed myself to think about what had happened, I would have become emotionally involved and thus not able to run."
"Well, that's what I made my film about—that statement. I found illustrations for it—a battered bunch of flowers, and a wreath, the empty block in the Olympic Village, the photographers photographing the photographers—everything so alien to the man running up that long hill on Sunday in Lancashire."
An interesting speculation about Visions of Eight would question whether each segment bears the unique signature of its maker—does one say "Ah-ha, Schlesinger, without question"? Mai Zetterling had warned that one of the disadvantages of the concept of Visions of Eight would be exactly that problem, that the film directors might try to outdo each other by using tricky techniques. "Competition must be kept to a minimum if the idea is to work out," she argued. "The vision must be authentic, not a recherché attempt to best fellow directors."
It would seem that Zetterling's presentiment was heeded. With perhaps the exception of Penn's out-of-focus gimmickry and Forman's speeded-up tomfoolery with his shots of Olympic officials, one could properly say that some of the segments are only less personal than others. The film is traditional and straightforward, such as Ichikawa's 100-meter dash (though one might feel that its technique shows the Japanese preoccupation with dissection and miniaturization), Ozerov's essay on starts, Lelouch's losers.
Certainly there is one quality that is inherent in all the visions. It is the loneliness of the athletes. They rarely talk, to each other or to the camera. Their voices are inner. Even their rage is silent. They puff their cheeks. Their eyes rarely focus. They are as beautiful and distant as mannequins. One of the few human scenes occurs at the end of Mai Zetterling's segment. Two wrestlers are leaving the exercise room carrying their kit bags. One of them is a super heavyweight, massive, moving away from the camera in a slow, regal waddle; walking beside him is a flyweight lifter, a midget by comparison. The two of them are talking briskly, friends for sure, and perhaps they are going off to have a beer somewhere. One hopes so. Perhaps it is no accident that a number of the Visions of Eight directors decided that if they ever combined again to do a film, it would be on the subject of love.