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 m�lange 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.