Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Arthur Penn's Bold Leap

A few weeks ago, Sidney Lumet passed away; last year Arthur Penn left us. Two first-rate American directors that gave us memorable works throughout the past four decades.

When I wrote about Penn shortly after his death last September, I mentioned a few of his films, including the brilliant Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as well as his moody, film noirish Night Moves (1975). Other noted works by Penn include The Miracle Worker (1962), Mickey One (1965) and Little Big Man (1970).

Penn took a break from feaure films for five years from 1970-1975, but did make one short film that is as visually dazzling as anything he ever did. The film is called The Highest and it was part of a 1973 documentary about the 1972 Summer Olympics held in Munich entitled Visions of Eight. The film was co-produced by David Wolper, who was one of the most influential documentary producers in Hollywood at that time.

When Wolper was awarded the rights to be the official documentarian of those games, he opted not to make a traditional record of the competition - who won, who lost - but instead came up with the brilliant idea of assigning eight directors from around the world - sort of an Olympic lineup of great filmmakers - who would each make a short film on the subject of their choice. Several famous directors tackled this project; Milos Forman authored a film on the decathlon, Claude Lelouch turned in a wonderfully sensitive piece on "The Losers" and John Schlesinger submitted an emotional look at the men's marathon.

Arthur Penn selected the men's pole vault competition (the women's pole vault event was not part of the Olympics back in 1972) and decided to make a film that showed the viewer the highly distinctive regimen of this sport. Penn trains his camera on the athletes, making their way down the runway and then vaulting high in the air, almost defying gravity; however, we are never told who these athletes are, as the director is much more interested in the unique visual aspect of this sport.

But this is no ordinary view of the pole vault competition as you might have watched on a major network. This is Penn's uniquely individual observation of this particular world and he presents a highly original summary. The first three minutes, which are particularly dazzling, set the tone. Soundless and shot mostly out of focus, the images are difficult to make out at first. We see a blurry image set among the bright blue sky and we're not certain of what we're seeing. One out of focus image looks like a bat or large bird in flight, while another looks more like an ink blotch from a Rorschach test. The viewer is confused at first, but we are instantly drawn into this film.

There is finally some sound after three minutes, this being the cheers of the spectators, but even that is only for a few seconds. Much of this film is silent, with only brief crowd noises or the sound of a pole hitting the ground. The film is all about the visual aspect of the sport; one fascinating sequence follows a vaulter lifting off from the ground and then heading over the bar; as it is filmed slightly out of focus with a telephoto lens, arms and legs seem as one and we see this competitor snake his way up and over the bar. By filming this in this fashion, Penn seems to be saying that this is not a normal athletic event, not this competition where vaulters are upside down for a few agonizing seconds.

There is another amazing image that is truly stunning. It is a low-angle shot of a vaulter about half way through his descent; it is shot from behind one of the judges who is standing near the mat where the competitors will land. We see this judge hold his hands out as though he were trying to catch the vaulter in mid-flight. It's an amazing visual and one of the most striking in this film.

Much credit has to go to the cinematographer, Walter Lassaly, who had previously been the director of photography on such films as Tom Jones (1963) and Zorba the Greek (1964). He turned in stellar work here, having to make do with a number of lenses (mostly telephoto) as well as grainy filmstock, while trying to follow the athletes soar though space and the plummet back to earth (there's one marvelous shot of a closeup of a competitor landing on the mat followed a few seconds later by the bar he knocked down on his leap. What a wonderful summary of the heartbreak of this sport in a single moment!)

Then there was the demanding job of combining all the footage shot by Penn and Lassaly; the editing was done by the great Dede Allen, who had also performed similar chores for Penn on Bonnie and Clyde. It's a masterful job of editing, one that will immediately impress you, but even more so upon repeated viewings. (Note: Like Penn, Dede Allen also passed away in 2010. There had been talk of an honorary Oscar for her lifetime's work - she also edited Dog Day Afternoon for Sidney Lumet and Reds for Warren Beatty. I would imagine that given her death, the Academy missed their opportunity to honor her.)

There have been several other documentaries and short films about athletic competition. Arthur Penn's The Highest is one of the best ever made. It certainly is one of the most original and challenging.

Here is the film, as displayed on YouTube. (I recommend going to Youtube and watching it in full screen mode - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6pRZCvAPlc)

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