Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Director: Asif Kapadia
Runtime: 91 min.
Verdict: Quite probably my favorite film of the year. For whatever that’s worth. Could be the greatest sports movie ever.
Perspective is pretty much a function of time and memory. Xuxa Meneghel kissed Ayrton Senna and wished him a happy new year for each one of ‘89, ‘90, ‘91, ‘92 and ‘93. Watching an incident unfold right before us, in the present, we’re scarcely aware, until we seek the aid of time and memory and realize the nature of the event that exists beyond the mere facts. This medium, more than any other form of art, because of its images, because of its motion, because of its ability to move back-and-forth through time, because of its ability to marry its images, because of its ability to make itself heard, is that aid. Oliver Stone’s Jfk is on the board of directors when it comes to my relationship with the movies. The opening particularly, with its mesh of images (real and doctored) and sound seemingly fired out of a bunch of machine-guns, is intense in the way it overwhelms you with what “appear” to be facts (simply because they seem to have been “captured”), and which to me represents cinema at the peak of its powers to persuade and manipulate. We see Senna against the backdrop of a Brazil that doesn’t seem to have many other reasons to smile. We see him lock horns with the establishment personified by Jean-Marie Balestre and Alain Prost, both seemingly the real-life variations of moustache-twirling villains. We see him referring to God and we feel we’ve amidst us a popular revolutionary. Mr. Kapadia’s Senna might even be mistaken, especially at that juncture, as some sort of a political statement against the governing body. And yet, when we see images of their last appearance on the podium, when we see Senna embracing Prost after the latter’s final race, when we feel the air of sadness around the San Marino GP, when we see the drivers and officials and commentators under that atmosphere after Ratzenberger’s death, when we hear the voice of Pierre Van Vliet use “everybody” to unite the F1 community, when we see Prost visibly shell-shocked after Senna’s final crash, when we see Damon Hill sitting by the track, when we see Prost and many others carry that coffin, it is the humanity that overwhelmed me. Alain Prost was just as much an integral part to the Senna story as his parents, as McLaren, as the sport, and as Brazil itself. I cried like a chil9d. More than propaganda it is this ability to unite the greatest treasure of the movies.
To claim that Mr. Kapadia’s film is something of a live-action drama unfolding before our eyes is to describe the film in terms of a tense it rarely, if ever, exists in. That unfortunate day in May ’94 looms large right from the elegiac tone that announces the opening frame, and although the fact that my memory of those days is still fresh can undermine my claim, a close-up of Ayrton Senna as his mother speaks of God and danger is foreboding enough. Even in its form, as it cuts through events, as it cuts through moments, it is not an unfolding but more of a highlights package. That Mr. Kapadia layers it with voice-over and joins one event with the next automatically causes it to be a product of perspective. And it is the discovery of the nature of this perspective – political or humane – or rather the shift from one to other that informs the central drama within the film.
And just as well three tracking shots chart this shift. It is probably impossible to overstate the significance these tracking shots assume in a film as this, especially when they are historical artifacts as opposed to ones created artificially. A tracking shot as any F1 race unfolds (present tense) is just a POV shot that gives us the excitement of a first-person account. Here, with my own knowledge of past and future, some of it aided by the preceding images, a million thoughts started going through my mind transforming them into some sort of an exercise in contemplation. And yet it doesn’t, in any way, dilute the purity of that act, which at the end of the day is to drive the car as fast as possible. The ’88 Monte Carlo GP announces the central political conflict and Senna’s metamorphosis from a smiling boy-wonder to one who takes on the establishment and becomes somewhat brutal himself. It announces a fighter and at the same place announces something that isn’t entirely pretty. The ’91 Brazilian GP helps him to discover himself, make him a man more at peace, a wiser person, and move over the conflict of the preceding years. Forgive and forget. During their final ever podium finish, Senna pulls Prost into the frame. That there is everything beautiful about sports.
And that is when Senna introduces the film’s central fear thereby making the politics and corruption absolutely insignificant in comparison. That threat unites the F1 community. The San Marino GP is a monumental cinematic artifact, sure for its aesthetic but primarily because of its historical significance. Mr. Kapadia doesn’t lend it anything, no music, no voiceover. A million things went through my mind. As Senna’s car took one turn and then another and then another, and the gloom of the preceding two days are cast all over, and the inevitability of the facts awaited me, I was completely shattered. That tracking shot is a painful experience. I never saw it before, I do not know if the footage exists beyond what is shown within the film, and yet I deeply respect and applaud the compassion to shy away from sensationalizing the event, whether it is from the filmmaker or the source itself. It is a great shot followed by an even greater edit, switching from within the car to a remote viewpoint. This one-two of the tracking shot and edit lead our turmoil to witness an accident that shook the F1 community and probably saved many lives.
Back in those times when I and my brother were kids, Ayrton Senna was just as much of a sporting hero for us as Diego Maradona was. We didn’t know anything about racing, and we never probably ever even watched any race at length except for to get excited when someone crashed. Those were the times when racing cars crashing used to serve as sensational footage for introducing sports shows. And yet we loved Senna. Just as we loved Sergei Bubka. Maybe it was because the way he looked, or maybe because he won so much. I cried when the Brazilian soccer team dedicated their World Cup to him, although that is when I realized Senna hailed from Brazil. Maybe it is the purity of these actions. Senna doesn’t leave us on a note of death or with any shattering sense of tragedy, like for instance Into the Wild. It leaves us with the knowledge of Senna’s greatest competitor from his karting days. It leaves with images of Senna having fun in the waters. It shows him jumping out and probably saving Erik Comas’ life. It shows him racing. It shows him living his life. And that leaves us at peace.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 7:42 PM