Reviewer: Jonthan Poritsky
Rating (out of 5): ****
Even in an artform as ever-changing as cinema, the best films from what many consider one of Hollywood's strongest, richest periods -- the late 60s/early 70s -- still feel remarkably fresh. And it's not just the famous examples, from The Graduate to The Parallax View, Chinatown to The Godfather, it's some of the lesser but still important films from that period that make it such a deep and endlessly fascinating era to study. And in that group I'd add Michael Ritchie's Downhill Racer, which is now out in a sparkling new Criterion DVD. Featuring some of the most innovative sports photography for its day and remarkable performances from Gene Hackman and Robert Redford, it's a wonder that this film isn't more well known. Thankfully, Criterion has reminded us to give it another look.
On its surface, Downhill Racer is a simple story about a man whose only life goal is to win for the sake of winning. Redford plays David Chappellet, a Colorado-born farm boy who quickly rises through the ranks on the U.S. ski team. He is a man-child in many ways, dealing with his daddy issues while chasing after women without any regard for his own (or anyone else's) well being. But because Redford is Redford, he doesn't come off as a complete schmuck. Even as he takes the woman off the arm of one of his teammates, he is suave and genuine. Eyes deep enough to drown in, it's no wonder he has made generations swoon.
But if the story is basic, this isn't a simple film; in fact, it is rather intellectually complicated. Downhill Racer actually deals with the many layers of masculinity, of sportsmanship, of emotional truthfulness. By utilizing a straightforward method, Ritchie and the screenwriter, novelist James Salter, are able to peel away the layers of a man until we are involved in the complexities of human emotion, the audience forced into participating in the story.
The term "Documentary Style" gets kicked around a lot in reference to this film. But that term is overused and almost meaningless, delegitimizing both the accomplishments of documentarians and non-documentarians alike. Today, now that the documentary form has been so refined, it is more difficult for audiences to cross fiction with non-fiction without losing interest. But when Downhill Racer came out in 1969 the rules were there to be broken and we have a film that feels simultaneously real and something-more-than-real. The camera placement is often voyeuristic (on a bed, at a party, in a press scrum), but it is also very alive. Less of a fly on the wall, it feels like we are character in the room. We are even afforded a view of the world from Chappellet's view, on skis as he heads towards redemption.
The ski photography in the film -- which was shot by cinematographer Brian Probyn, who was also one of the three DPs on the gorgeous Terence Malick film Badlands -- is masterful, as is the sound design. As we shoosh down the slopes in first person point of view, our ears are filled with the white noise that accompanies such a drive. In these almost meditative moments we try to process everything that is happening off the mountains, just as a downhill racer would do. The rush is exhilarating, but the effect is actually calming. Emotionally, we are right in step with David Chappellet, processing his growth while aiming for gold.
I don't think it is possible to make a film like this anymore. All of the things the New Hollywood generation has taught us have been refined and codified down to an exact science. Even many independents adhere to very specific rules of bankability (partially due to Mr. Redford's influence via Sundance, but that's another essay). It's as we have a new self-imposed Classical Hollywood system. How did we get here? We can look to Michael Ritchie's career span for guidance.
His later films, such as Cops and Robbersons or The Golden Child, were not exactly the subversive stalwarts that defined his early work, Downhill Racer, the underrated Smile, The Candidate (also with Redford), and, yes, Bad News Bears. I don't want to insult the man's filmography; everyone has to eat and I have no doubt that he put all of himself into everything he made. However, I think the system failed him over the years. He just wasn't afforded the same leverage he had early on. With the minimum return on investment so high for films, makers are forced to release popular movies that will hook an audience, rather than a film that requires a little creative participation.
Extras include new interviews with Redford, screenwriter James Salter, film editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert--who was the film's technical adviser, ski double, and cameraman; and audio excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Ritchie, which is definitely worth a listen.
[Trailer on the Criterion site.]
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