White Rock (1977)

Dir. Tony Maylam. Starring James Coburn.

Maylam pares down the Olympics to what makes them thrilling, the reason why every couple of years we stop doing what we do for two weeks and become curling strategists or figure skating nitpickers or speed skating enthusiasts. In the Winter Olympics in particular, speed is the answer. The thrill of taking your bobsled or your skis down straight ice at seventy miles per hour is daunting and electrifying, and to the best of his ability Maylam manages to let us feel that fabulous swiftness. Not every event he focuses on—and Maylam holds the movie to six men’s events—has that speed, but he manages to imbue heart-pumping action into an event like biathlon. The Olympics does not keep up us because of nations, or because of personalities, Maylam argues, but because it is the last word in our ideation of athletics: for two weeks or so, we can imagine what it would be like to fall like a stone off a mountain without ever fearing the ground.

White Rock has two advantages over the average documentary. The first is Rick Wakeman, whose score for the movie is precisely the kind of kinetic music which one wants for watching young people fling themselves helter skelter over the ice. His music for ski jumping is ethereal and piercing, the combination of a man hurtling down a ramp and placing himself in opposition to the mountain in the far distance. His music for pairs’ figure skating is so flowery and gentle that it almost feels like someone else’s work, although he also manages in one sequence to pair the powerful energy of figure skating (which people never seem to talk about enough) with a madcap tune. Biathlon receives, in my opinion, the most memorable music of all for a sport which seems totally bizarre on first hearing. For the sport which involves the difficulty of cross-country skiing and the precision of long-range marksmanship, Wakeman has come up with music that in its quiet moments reflects the intake of breath and in its more exciting ones imitates the chipping of arms and legs, the speck-by-speck precision of aiming a rifle while one’s arms are shaking with exertion. Eventually, the two blare into one another, as is inevitable in the biathlon as the race nears the end and the fatigue grows ever greater.

The second advantage is somehow even more unexpected than Wakeman: it’s James Coburn. How and why Coburn gets into this documentary is beyond me, but he turns out to be a very welcome presence. Sometimes operatic (“flashing blades” for hockey), sometimes funny (as when he asks Karl Schranz about the wax he puts on his skis), sometimes forthright (I didn’t even know what luging was until I got to Austria, he says), Coburn is the human face of a documentary that could get esoteric very quickly. He tries several events out for himself. He gives a go at biathlon, comparing his shooting before and after skiing 1,000 meters. He puts on the pads and gets in the net for the Austrian hockey team at practice. They send him on a bobsled and even let him drive the thing, which is ludicrous; when it looks like he’s going to give the luge a shot, I was pretty sure they were going to kill Coburn for Art. Mercifully, it’s not him. “You didn’t think that was me, did you?” he grins, and I was relieved. Hosting the program feels like a natural for him, and as much as anything else he seems to be having a good time. Wakeman and Maylam provide the grandeur; Coburn etches wry smiles and offhand comments into that edifice.

Aside from Coburn, relatively few people are mentioned by name. People looking for a record of the ’76 Winter Games in Innsbruck will be disappointed, for there is very little there which records what happened. Irina Rodnina, the queen of pairs’ figure skating, wins gold with partner Alexander Zaitsev. The East Germans win the four-man bobsled; the Soviets win hockey; Franz Klammer wins the men’s downhill, but there’s probably more screen time for Karl Schranz, who participated in his last Olympics four years ago, than there is for the man whom Coburn says will become the greatest celebrity of all the medal winners. (Either Maylam has no idea who Dorothy Hamill is, or what people cared about in 1976 is totally different than what they care about in 2018.) Nor is it merely limited in terms of which people show up: the events themselves are pared down. While there is footage of just about every discipline in White Rock, individual events are more or less subsumed into a single feature. Thus the pairs’ figure skating eats up the singles’ competiton, and the men’s downhill takes the place of all the women’s events and the less charismatic men’s events as well. It’s a potentially controversial choice—and at only 75 minutes or so, it had plenty more room to dig into the results—but it pays off in the long run. Maylam has his finger on what makes the Olympics memorable, as if he can foresee what people will remember and care about twenty, forty, one hundred years in the future. The individual names will fade, but the adrenaline can last forever.

Maylam juxtaposes the speed of his shots intelligently. When given an opportunity, he’s glad enough to sit and watch a performance, as he does from above with the Soviet pairs’ skaters. Yet he also recognizes how powerful slow-motion is in a picture like this one. In one shot, we see Rodnina and Zaitsev slowly twirl with her head just inches above the ice, but at other times we see the speed that they reach flying around the ice. The beginnings of the bobsled competition are noted: the thrust of hips, the checking of goggles, the pulling of gloves, and the sprinting of the push start. And after all of those close-ups in a real time, Maylam pulls back and gives us a chance to see what a bobsled looks like as it smoothly, almost effortlessly, rumbles down the track. We’ve already watched the faces of men, including Coburn’s, going down this track three times. We understand the speed and the preparation now, and we’re prepared for the beauty of the shining paint job glowing against its white background, knowing that if we were to stand where the camera was in real time we should hardly be able to get more than a blur.

In groups, the biathletes tend to come in slow motion, pouring out of the starting gate and pounding their poles into the snow, but Maylam understands that the individual checking his sight and aiming at the target is more interesting in real time. We can see his labored breathing, watch him think about hitting the target, think about what will happen if he misses and he must ski the penalty.

Hockey seems slow in the movie, although that may have as much to do with the difference between the “amateurs” of 1976 and the all-star teams we’re used to seeing now, as the sport has evolved and the athletes have gotten bigger, stronger, and faster. There are more men who have fallen to the ice, who jostle for the puck with their sticks, who crowd around one another. Hockey is given as a game of speed, certainly, but it’s also very much a game of scrums in the way Maylam depicts it. And when he does call for slow-motion for hockey, it’s almost because we need the slow-motion to see what’s going on: namely, a goal is scored.

Maylam manages to find what is cinematic in sport without ever giving us the narrative that we currently fall back on. So much of sports coverage is reduced to personality differences, upstarts and old guards, vengeance and dominance. In short, much of popular interest in sports is reduced to two conflicting and silly impulses. First, it is reduced to the level of petty high school squabbling, the kind of disputes which we would decry as immature in our own lives but in the lives of others feels vital. Second, it is reduced to a question of “legacy” and “how will history remember this moment,” as if we in our present time could read even a second into the future, and as if our prognostications were anything more than vanity. White Rock gives us something quite different. In primary colors that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Mondrian, Maylam rediscovers what is glorious about athletic competition without putting too much weight or too much drama into the offing. This is a movie about exciting moments, powerful exertion, and wish-you-were-here postcards.

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