Sunday, September 23, 2012

Chariots of Fire

This was probably my favorite movie when I was a teenager. I know that I said it was in writing on at least one occasion, though this was more an instance of its being what occurred to me at the moment than the result of long and careful meditation. I don't know how many times I saw it--I would guess within the bounds of four and eight--and even at that age I was exposed to enough criticism to be aware that there was a substantial portion of the intelligent population that immediately recognized it as rubbish. I remember one particularly dismissive reviewer calling it a tribute to the human spirit inspired by Barry Manilow (Here is the actual quote, along with a number of other cold assessments I still remember from that increasingly distant time). Such assured evisceration, especially when combined with the suggestion of a tirelessly combative edginess, always makes an impression on me, for such attitude and clear perception are perhaps what I have always most desperately needed, but have never been able to develop. In spite of these persuasive denunciations, and my increased awareness of the lies and false assurances that the movie continues to put over on unreflective audiences, I find that I still like it. These lies and false assurances were certainly of a nature that I had a pointed hunger for in my adolescence, and doubtless still do now, for in matters of taste nothing ever comes to any kind of resolution with me, and thus I never 'move on' from even the most childish affections.

To address first off some of the more common criticisms, namely that the movie plays loose with the historical facts, that it pretends to be critical of the British ruling establishment of the 1920s and the society they lorded over while offering one of the most highly romanticized depictions of it ever to appear on celluloid, and that any depiction of this odious world as at all attractive is offensive to anyone with the most modestly developed moral sensibility, I have to admit that none of these objections has much resonance with me. Most of the alterations to the historical record are decidedly minor and were made in the service of telling a more interesting story. This has only been done thousands of times in biographical dramas and literary works dating back to The Iliad and the Book of Genesis. I suppose it could be argued that the ready availability to writers of much more accurate historical records in modern times renders the practice of expanding liberally from a basic framework in dramatic works archaic, though I think over-adherence to the exact record in small matters is to miss the point of art; though in the case of Chariots of Fire, and probably most movies, most of the critical disapproval in this area is really aimed at the unpalatable (to the critic) aesthetic or political attitude in the service of which the alteration was made. With regard to the second point, it is true that such criticisms of upper class attitudes as are to be found in the movie have more of the air of an intra-fraternal disagreement than an assault from a representative of the legitimately aggrieved. That is the personality of the movie. The two main characters are highly talented and strong-willed, what used to be referred to as 'coming' men. They are certainly developed enough in character, and the society in which they are operating tolerant and flexible enough, that it is impossible they would be entirely crushed by it. The movie depicts a lovely world whose most infuriating quality is not only that not everyone who wants badly to partake of it is able to, but, even more damning, that being left out they are usually unable to reproduce anything resembling its attractive qualities on their own. In a sense the movie serves as a reminder, though I think a pretty gentle one, that some people really are winners, really do make the most of their opportunities and talents, achieve goals and develop into accomplished people who contribute in a positive manner to the character of their society. Though on the other hand perhaps part of the offense is that the movie gives a misleading impression of the glamour of upper class life and the apparent ease, even effortlessness with which the heights of success can be attained, which is one of the primary characteristics distinguishing the second-rate from the first-rate. Nothing that happens in the movie--holding one's one against the snooty elite at Cambridge, leading a serious Christian life that manages to be both noble and unimpeachable, winning gold medals at the Olympics--is presented in a way that seems, or is, inaccessible to the typical middle class audience member, and therein is the film's primary failure, and the reason it cannot hold the interest of sophisticated people who operate at a world class level in at least one area of life (though usually once you attain that status in one pursuit, the difficulty of mastering others appears to be considerably reduced). Great things are hard, they are rare, their secrets are frustrating and obscure. To give the impression that they are otherwise is to misrepresent such real value to the human race as they have. And above all else, the person of middling intelligence and accomplishment must know this, if he is to avoid being an even greater buffoon than he already is.

All that acknowledged, whenever I come back to thinking about the actual film it seems to me to have something in it more than a bunch of pretty but empty gestures designed to manipulate the anglophilic and conservative tendencies of half-educated people. There is a good deal in it that suggests how to live a more vital life, how to maximize one's potential, what kind of people to seek out and surround oneself with, if possible, how to offer something to society on your own behalf. The movie covers a short time in the early part of much longer lives of two dead and, were it not for this movie, largely forgotten men who lived now close to a century ago, culminating in a pair of races that lasted 10 and 47 seconds, respectively, but every life depicted in any detail in the film is presented as purposeful and worth having lived, and I have always found that very reassuring, even though by the standards of the most rigorous modern thought this is almost certainly a lie.

Some footage of the real Liddell and Abrahams in their gold-medal winning races in 1924:

I haven't been able to make the case for it that I wanted to, but I also think a week is enough time to put into the effort.  

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