Cinema's winning formula

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Edward Lawrenson tears himself away from his DVDs long enough to see how the spectacle of sport stands up on the silver screen

Cinema's winning formula
Formula 1 takes on Tarkovksy: our writer is swayed by fast cars in the cinema
At the risk of indulging in wild generalisation, most arthouse film buffs are not sport fans. In my experience they – OK, we – are socially maladjusted, physically enfeebled, daylight-deprived souls who will only be parted from the comfort of their DVD collection for something obscure like an eight-hour Béla Tarr movie. While others spend their weekends watching Sky Sports, this hardened breed can be found at NFT3 submitting to a programme of recondite Iranian animation. So when Odeon and other chains start showing live sport events like the Rugby World Cup it feels an invasion of hallowed turf. Add to this the trend for streaming music concerts – with an unaccountable bias towards progressive-rock dinosaurs (Dave Gilmour, Genesis anyone?) – and you risk depriving film aesthetes of their one excuse to get out of the house. What’s going on here?

To find an answer, I’m spending a Sunday afternoon at the Odeon Covent Garden’s live screening of the Italian Grand Prix. Being wholly ignorant about motor racing, I want to know if I can get the same aesthetic kick from the experience as I would from, say, an Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective. Initial signs are encouraging. There are only four audience members, including a petrol-head friend I brought along. Although this desultory showing is the result of a temporary fault which saw the cinema turn people away, it’s still good news. The best, most demanding arthouse films are always the most sparsely attended; at this showing I’m in for an experience of uncommon artistic rigour. 'Le grand prix. Un film de Formula 1'.

The opening minutes, though, are disappointing: pre-race footage of the drivers, glamorous young women, and balding technical guys milling about in the paddock, typical TV sports coverage that gains nothing from being on the big screen. Where’s the tension, the artistry, the foreshadowing of narrative motifs?

But then the race starts, and the film becomes genuinely exciting. The picture is crisp, bright and smooth, far more vivid than any TV clips. But it's the noise of the cars, a cloud of mosquitoes amplified to thunderous cinema-surround levels that gets me. Watching these sleek machines charge round the track to a soundtrack turned up to 11 jump-starts the adrenaline levels; and it makes me change my expectations.

This is nothing like a film by Tarkovsky. Hot damn! This is a freakin’ Michael Bay movie. ‘Transformers’ wimps out by comparison.
The Michael Bay parallels only intensify when we have the good luck to witness David Coulthard crash. There's smoke, a burst tyre, bits of the car everywhere: it's spectacular. The guilt I feel at cheering this accident (Coulthard was fine) is only partly assuaged by the fact that the noise of the cars drowns out my spontaneous woop. Anyhow I blame Michael Bay and his ilk for desensitising me to real life.

This crash proves a highlight, and by the twentieth lap I'm beginning to tire. Even Michael Bay’s films surrender to the tug of narrative, and so it is that I start to ask my friend about the fundamentals of Formula 1. Following a hurried primer, the experience acquires a different resonance. I start to appreciate the expert driving of race leader Fernando Alonso. And when the front-lift jack gets stuck under Robert Kubica’s BMW during a pit-stop it is a moment of high tension. In short, for the final 30 minutes of the Grand Prix, this movie buff became a sports fan.

Would this transformation have happened if I’d watched at home on ITV1? I doubt it. There’s something thrilling and intense about these big-screen transmissions. Even this socially maladjusted, physically enfeebled, daylight-deprived movie buff had fun.


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