Monday, June 21, 2021

Visions of Eight


VISIONS OF EIGHT (Anthology Film, 1973)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jun 22, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

When executive producer David L. Wolper scoured the globe for a dream team of directors to shoot a film about the 1972 Munich Olympics, he didn't worry about whether any of them were actually fans of the games. Swedish director Mai Zetterling states explicitly that “I am not interested in sports” at the start of her segment, but it's clear that most of her colleagues also prioritize aesthetics over athletics.

With eight different “visions” this anthology film reflects a kaleidoscope of interests and perspectives, but a few dominant themes emerge. Zetterling, the only woman hired for the project, trains her cameras on the burliest men at the competition, weightlifters. She is primarily interested in the obsession required to train for such specific feats. What kind of man spends hours every day frog-hopping across a cold gym floor and pumping his body full of eggs and boiled ham all so he press an iron barbell over his head, preferably a bar loaded with 2 more kilograms than anyone else in the world can lift? I dunno – the kinda guy who really likes to lift heavy stuff, I guess.

British director John Schlesinger similarly wonders what would drive a man to spend hundreds of lonely hours running along country roads day after day just to be able to run a single marathon at the Olympics. While Zetterling's obsessive giants can be viewed with a mixture of awe and affectionate bemusement, Schlesinger's segment unearths a darker side to an athlete's monomania. One competitor reads newspaper reports of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists, literally just down the road from him in the Olympic Village, and tries his best to block it all out: “I'm here for one thing, and that's to run a marathon.”

Obviously, the murders overshadow everything else about the Munich Olympics, something Wolper could not have foreseen when he initiated the project. The failure to include anything but a fleeting reference to the terrorist attacks until Schlesinger's late segment also overshadows “Visions of Eight” and was the source of much of the controversy surrounding the film's 1973 release, first at the Cannes Film Festival, then to many negative reviews in the states. Perhaps an obsession with art above all other concerns also needed to be examined.

Along with obsession, the film's other dominant theme is failure. French filmmaker Claude Lelouch titled his segment “The Losers” and he provides a moving portrait of athletes at the moment they know their lifelong ambition has been thwarted, at least for now. A losing boxer rages futilely against cold fate in the ring before heading over to his corner for a consoling hug from his trainer. A gimpy wrestler gamely fights on, but has to be helped to the sideline by his opponent. As men and women weep openly, having given it their all and still come up short, the world moves on, leaving them alone and forgotten (except by Lelouch's camera, at least for a few minutes more.)

As Lelouch renders failure sympathetic, American director Arthur Penn transforms it into a thing of beauty. In the film's boldest stylistic segment, Penn composes slow-motion, sometimes blurry images of pole vaulters racing to their destiny. Soaring high and all alone in the universe, one man after another trips that cruelly fragile bar, then freefalls back to earth along with his dreams. When the montage of failed attempts finally morphs into triumphs, with bodies gracefully contorting themselves to just barely clear the bar, the strategic eruptions of applause (the only audible sounds in many shots) accentuate the viewer's euphoria.

In a segment by Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa (director of 1965's “Tokyo Olympiad”), we see a Trinidadian sprinter pull up lame at the start of the 100-meter dash, then we see him do it again and still again. Ichikawa filmed this 10-second race with more than 30 cameras, pointed at each lane, from the sides and above, to document this brief blaze of kinetic energy. He's not just interested in the failure of the one runner, but in the experience of each of them, with slow-motion close-ups on their faces twisted into grimaces of maximum effort. It's a beautiful piece, but far too short.

The net result is indeed a film of remarkable visions, heavier on spectacle than on insight or analysis. Call it a sports film both by and for non-sports fans perhaps. Had it been filmed any other year, it would be easier to celebrate its chronicle of the beauty of bodies in motion, of the potential of human willpower properly harnessed. But it's difficult to think of the Munich Olympics for anything other than tragedy.


The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Criterion included “Visions of Eight” as part of its sprawling “100 Years of Olympic Films” set back in 2017. I don't own that set for comparison. However, this 1080p transfer is sharp throughout, even with some of the extreme slow-motion footage where detail might be harder to preserve accurately. This 4K restoration “from the 35 mm original camera negative” has no obvious flaws.


The linear PCM mono audio track is crisp and provides a strong presentation both of the classical music excerpts and the original score by Henry Mancini. Optional English SDH subtitles support the audio.


The film is accompanied by a commentary track by podcasters Amanda Dobbins, Sean Fennessey, and Chris Ryan of “The Ringer.” To the best of my knowledge, this is the first Criterion commentary done by podcasters. They add a sports savvy that's largely absent from the film itself.

The main extra feature is a new Making Of documentary (2021, 54 min.). I suspect many fans only sample snippets from lengthy Making Of features, but this one is packed with information about an unusual and complex production. Claude Lelouch is the only director who worked on “Visions” who is still alive and he is featured here along with historian David Clay Large and the sons of both David L. Wolper and Arthur Penn. The most interesting aspect of this feature is learning about the other directors Wolper approached. Fellini never agreed to participate, but did allow Wolper to use his name to attract other talent. Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene shot a film about Olympic basketball, but his footage wasn't used for reasons that aren't fully explained. What a huge loss for the project – I'd love to know more.

The only other features are a short promotional film (6 min.) that accompanied the film's 1973 release and a short Trailer (3 min.)

The thick insert booklet includes George Plimpton's 1973 “Sports Illustrated” review of the film, an excerpt from David L. Wolper's 2003 memoir “Producer,” and an essay about the film by novelist Sam Lipsyte.

Final Thoughts:

In 1972, tragedy eclipsed athletics at the Munich Olympics. In 2020, global tragedy canceled the Olympics for the first time in the post-WW2 era. Here's hoping the 2021 Tokyo Olympics are remembered only for their pageantry and competition.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021



STREETWISE (Bell, 1984)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date June 15, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

After a decade of economic struggles, Seattle officials were eager to rebrand the Emerald City as one of America's “most livable” locations heading into the '80s. Photographer Mary Ellen Mark and journalist Cheryl McCall were sent by “Life” magazine to the new, more “livable” Seattle and they returned with a devastating story about homeless teens eking out perilous livings on the streets. Their article was published in the July 1983 issue of “Life” by which time Mark had already contacted her husband, director Martin Bell, about featuring the kids in a documentary, a project that turned into “Streetwise” (1984).

“Streetwise” introduces viewers first to the big city and its vibrant waterfront, then to the broad array of teens who spend their days and nights along Pike Street near the Pike Street Market. The boys aggressively panhandle while most of the girls work as prostitutes. All look impossibly young while sounding so very much older than their years. Several girls speak quite matter-of-factly about being beaten and raped – by 14 or 15, such horrors have simply become an expected part of their daily lives. They calmly weigh the merits of various pimps (most of them also teens), sizing up who might offer them the best protection.

The film gradually begins to focus more on a few emergent stars. Rat, a scrawny boy who can't weigh 100 pounds soaking wet, dumpster dives for food and constantly hustles for cash, preferably with a more muscular partner backing him up. Lulu, a tough-as-nails lesbian, declares herself the unofficial protector of Pike Street; she evinces no fear whether dealing with violent homeless men or the police.

If this ensemble documentary has a single lead, it's 14-year-old Erin Blackwell, better known as Tiny. Tiny dreams of being “really rich” and living on a farm with lots of horses, but her current reality sees her spending more time at the free clinic where she worries about getting pregnant or contracting another STD from one of her “dates.” With a wry smile and a quick wit, Tiny appears to be a true survivor, though the threat of abrupt, unavoidable violence hangs over even the most grizzled veteran of the streets.

Unlike many of the other children, Tiny hasn't lost all contact with her parents. Tiny's mother feeds her a meager meal at the cheap diner where she works, marveling at how quickly her daughter has grown up in her new life away from home. Mom is fully aware of how Tiny earns her living, but dismisses the tragic situation as “just a phase,” justifying her inaction (and her preference for booze over parenting.) Tiny's decision to live on the streets has its own logic. Her home situation seems even worse, and the street offers the tantalizing illusion of freedom – new friends, no rules, and more money than mom could ever make.

One of the film's most unforgettable scenes involves another parent-child interaction. Dewayne, a skinny scrapper like Rat, visits his father in prison. Dad tries to scare Dewayne straight with a stern lecture about the right way to live that fails to convince when delivered through the plastic screen that separates them. He promises Dewayne “I'm gonna make it up to you” but neither of them believe he'll get a chance to deliver. The poignant image of the father pressing his hand helplessly against the screen as Dewayne turns his back to leave is difficult to shake off.

In contrast to the hand-held “fly on the wall” style associated with direct cinema, Bell prefers more static compositions, sometimes with the camera mounted on a tripod, producing many patient, beautiful shots of a hectic, ugly reality. This aesthetic approach communicates an air of respect for the film's marginalized characters, though it's fair to ask how anyone could witness this brutal exploitation of children without putting down the camera and intervening. In a 2015 excerpt included in the Criterion booklet, Mary Ellen Mark says that she and Bell offered to bring Tiny home with them in 1983, but that Tiny declined. Could they have done more? Could the social workers or other support figures only briefly glimpsed in the film have done more? Whatever the answer, the tragic fates that awaited so many of the film's characters (one of the girls was murdered by serial killer Gary Ridgway) once again raises doubts about the capacity of documentary to serve as a tool for social change.

If they didn't bring Tiny home with them, Mark and Bell did stay in touch with her over the years, shooting several short films and eventually the feature “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” (2016) which Bell completed after Mark died in 2015. Now in her forties, Erin is the mother of ten children along with many adorable little dogs. Erin raised some of her children; others became wards of the state at various points. As Erin inherited the problems of her parents, her kids have inherited many of her struggles. Some of them, like Erin, are drug addicts, some in and out of prison or juvie, and some are still wide-eyed, happy little kids. Much of the film consists of Mary Ellen and Erin reminiscing over footage from their earlier films, lending this follow-up project echoes of the “Up” series of documentaries. Whatever her travails, Erin keeps doing what she's best at: keeping on.


“Streetwise” is presented in a 1.40:1 aspect ratio, pretty close to a fullscreen ratio. “Streetwise” was shot on 16mm film and the 1080p restoration looks grainy as you might expect from the source. This transfer looks fantastic overall with rich detail and a naturalistic color palette.

“Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell” is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It was shot on digital, but includes a lot of 16mm footage from “Streetwise.” Obviously, image quality varies based on the source, but this is another strong 1080p transfer.


“Streetwise” is presented with a linear PCM mono audio track. “Tiny” gets a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. “Streetwise” features both direct sound and voice-over, as well as some overlapping dialogue and it's all crisply and cleanly mixed here. The film also makes prominent use of a street performance of “Teddy Bears' Picnic” by Baby Gramps and it sounds great here, as do songs by Tom Waits. “Tiny” doesn't make much use of surround channels, but doesn't need to – the audio is clear and distortion-free. Optional SDH English subtitles support the English dialogue in both films.


This single-disc Blu-ray release from Criterion includes two feature films, “Streetwise” and "Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.” Extras are included along with each feature.

“Streetwise” is accompanied by a commentary track by director Martin Bell.

Criterion has also included a new interview (2020, 10 min.) with Bell in which he discusses the film's genesis (from the “Life” article by Mary Ellen Mark and Cheryl McCall) and provides more detail about the production, including the fact that the budget mostly consisted of funding from singer Willie Nelson.

We also get a new interview (2021, 17 min.) with editor Nancy Baker who discusses how she shaped many hours of footage into a narrative. A Trailer (3 min.) is also included.

Under “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” Criterion offers several more features.

This includes two other short films about Erin Blackwell's life, “Tiny at 20” (1993, 14 min.) and “Erin” (2005, 23 min.) Much of the footage from these two shorts is shown in “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.” “Streetwise Revisited: Rat” (14 min.) is a new feature which catches up with Rat, now a husband and a father and owner of a towing company.

“The Amazing Plastic Lady” (1995, 22 min.) is a short documentary. In 1993, Mary Ellen Mark published the book “Indian Circus” about child acrobats in India. This 1995 documentary follows up on that material, largely focusing on Pinky, a 10-year-old girl who can contort her body into a pretzel at will. The film covers both her family and work environment, and shares some clear similarities with “Streetwise.”

The last supplement is a Trailer (2 min.) for “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.”

The fold-out booklet includes an essay by historian Andrew Hedden, a reprint of the 1983 “Life” magazine article by McCall and Mark (along with some of Mark's magnificent photographs), and a brief excerpt from Mark's book “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited” in which she discusses her relationship with Erin Blackwell.

Final Thoughts:

“Streetwise” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, losing to “The Times of Harvey Milk.” This two-film Blu-ray release from Criterion and its supplementary features give viewers the sense of the scope of the project that Mark, Bell, and McCall began with “Streetwise” and continued for the next several decades.