Film: an Olympian spectacle

Age isn't the only thing film and the modern Olympics have in common, argues Mark Cousins

Illustration: Phil Wrigglesworth

The Olympics aren’t the only games in town. Like Adele, they’re everywhere, the main melody of these weeks. But other things are happening too. Lights are going down across the land, and movies are being shown. At first thought, doing something as passive as going to sit in the dark to watch a film during these live, often open-air games seems un-Olympic, or even anti-Olympic. But the more you think about it, the less contrarian moviegoing becomes. Unexpected connections emerge.

For a start, the movies and the modern Olympics were born in the same historical moment – December 1895 and April 1896 respectively. It was a time when inventors thought up grand projects. And what grand projects the flicks and the Games have become. What stews of toil, dream and hubris.

And to say that is to suggest a second affinity between film and the Olympics. Both are spectator spectacles. We watch each on raked seating or at home on TV. They reveal themselves for us, usually in widescreen. We can watch them on our own, of course, but their pleasures are amplified when enjoyed with others.

And what of these pleasures? What sort of fun do we get from cinema and the Olympics? A key element of the Games is their heroics. We watch an individual push themselves beyond what others can do on the track or in the pool or with a javelin. Compare this to, say, Luke Skywalker using the Force, or the films of John Wayne or (for you real movie buffs), the character of Tome in Shôhei Imamura’s ‘The Insect Woman’ (1963), and you find the same idea: psychology as a muscle, worked and built. What has made movies so popular in the last 120 years has been Hollywood and Bollywood’s near obsession with the heroic. This isn’t the only movie mode, of course, but it has been the dominant one. The romantic individual versus the world. Mainstream cinema is romantic art, about the lone soul. The Olympics are, surely, in a similar way, the romantic sport.

And so if movie stars like Marlon Brando, Amitabh Bachchan and Brigitte Bardot resemble sports stars like Cassius Clay (as was), Nadia Comaneci and Sebastian Coe, then can’t we nudge these thoughts on by saying that movies and the Olympics share a similar erotica? I know that the Olympics and Paralympics are supposed to be about the achieving body, not the admired body, but sorry, let’s admit it: watching movies and the Olympics is a bit sexy.

A better way to explain this is that both film and the Olympics are about bodies in motion. Perhaps my favourite moment in American cinema comes at the end of Billy Wilder’s ‘The Apartment’ (1960). Shirley MacLaine is at a boring New Year’s dinner. Suddenly, she realises that Jack Lemmon is into her. Cut to her running down a street at night. It’s as beautiful a run as Ethiopian Abebe Bikila’s in Rome in 1960. This 100-metre dash is for her life, because everything has just clicked gorgeously into place. There’s nothing but that moment for her. She’s in the zone. Jack is the finishing line.

As I said, romantic art. But think of other bodies in the movies, and I don’t mean sports movies, because that’s too easy: Sean Connery climbing in the intense heat in ‘The Hill’ (1965); those limbering crotch stretches in ‘Cabaret’ (1972); hauling the boat in ‘Fitzcarraldo’ (1982); the antsy grace of Chaplin; the way Kim Novak walks in ‘Vertigo’ (1958); the slo-mo of the guys walking to camera in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992). Great moments of what fancy people call kinaesthesia – the beauty of movement. Isn’t kinaesthesia one of the great pleasures of the Olympics – all those slow-motion replays? If I’m being a bit vague here, look at Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’ (2006). Its sensuality of movement brilliantly shows what I mean.

So movies and the modern Olympics were born at the same time, and both became about spectacle, heroics, eroticism, romanticism and about the body. Quite a lot for two things that you’d think have nothing in common. There are other connections too. Time is crucial to both. Movie time is elastic and subjective, like sporting time. And, of course, there’s the little matter of buildings. The architecture of the great cinematheques is as much of a statement as the Bird’s Nest in Beijing or London’s new stadia. And the most recent two opening ceremonies have been directed by Zhang Yimou (‘House of Flying Daggers’) and Danny Boyle (‘Slumdog Millionaire’). Yes, the Olympics may be the main melody of these days, but the music of the movies harmonises surprisingly well.

Mark Cousins’s TV series ‘The Story of Film’ is available on DVD.