Criterion Review: VISIONS OF EIGHT

Eight international filmmakers bring unique artistry to the 1972 Munich Olympics

After a year’s delay, the Summer Olympics are set to kick off in a few weeks in Tokyo. The Olympics, officially called the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, are a supremely awkward marriage of patriotism, athleticism, and politics. The talent of the athletes themselves is always amazing, but by now I’ve read too many stories, seen too many Real Sports reports, and learned enough about the world to ever be truly excited about the Olympics as a spectacle. To that end, Visions of Eight is something of an antidote to my cynicism. It’s a collection of short films from directors all over the world who convened at the 1972 Munich Olympics to capture the stories that get lost in the bright lights of the sports world’s largest stage.

Produced by Stan Margulies, the featured directors are Juri Ozerov (“The Beginning”), Mai Zetterling (“The Strongest”), Arthur Penn (“The Highest”), Michael Pfleghar (“The Women”), Kon Ichikawa (The Fastest”), Milos Forman (The Decathlon”), Claude Lelouch (“The Losers”), and John Schlesinger (“The Longest”). The subjects cover various sports, but each segment is really about the athletes. If there’s a unifying theme here besides the obvious, it’s the way each director captures the humanity underlying the physical achievements. Whether or not the athletes win is largely beside the point, and the opening text makes clear that the purpose of the film is not to simply recap the results. As they say, it’s about the journey rather than the destination, and Visions of Eight frequently finds ways to distill a lifetime’s worth of practice, work, and finely tuned skill into these vignettes that are enthralling. Hope, determination, desperation, ecstasy, and agony.

Nowhere in the film is the sense of the journey felt more than in the segments from Forman and Schlesinger, which focus on the two longest events in the decathlon and marathon. The singular focus driving the athletes until their bodies are ready to give out is simply amazing. That theme also pops up in Lelouch’s “The Losers,” wherein we see a wrestler with a clearly injured leg continuing to get up just to be thrown down again. For all the talents the athletes have, perhaps their greatest skill is perseverance and competing in the Olympics represents the finish line for a lifetime’s worth of work.

Each segment is compelling, but for pure spectacle nothing tops Penn’s section dedicated to pole vaulting. Us mere mortals can only imagine what it’s like to fly through the air, but Penn’s segment captures the absolute splendor of watching someone defy physics and gravity by flinging themselves in the air with a sturdy and flimsy pole. It’s downright majestic. The camera captures many shots of athletes sailing over a bar (and plenty of people hitting the bar), framing the action such that we see the bar at the bottom of the screen and blue skies above it. Better still, all of the action is captured in glorious slow motion. It’s the simplest portion of the film and also the most thrilling. There were times where an athlete hung in the air for what seemed an impossible amount of time.

But there’s something else that lingers over Visions of Eight.

It’s surreal to watch a movie in the aftermath of a major world event. There’s a tension throughout the film, an unintended awkwardness that can’t help but shape the viewing experience. For me, the first time I remember this happening was with Idle Hands, a mostly bad horror-comedy that featured numerous teenagers dying in bloody deaths. It came out days after the Columbine school shooting. As a 14 year old, sitting in this movie I had snuck into with friends, it was the first time I had the awareness of having a real world tragedy color the way I watched a piece of entertainment. In September 2001, there was Zoolander with its digitally erased World Trade Center towers. Real life shapes art and vice versa. Visions of Eight is an oddly nerve-jangling experience. The stories in the film center around the 1972 Munich Olympics, without tackling the singular event that is synonymous with it, the kidnapping and killing of 11 Israeli athletes, coaches, and officials by Palestinian extremist group Black September and one German police officer. No matter how engrossing Visions of Eight is at times, I couldn’t get the attack out of my mind. It’s a no-win proposition for the filmmakers to have to grapple with a tragedy, and the decision to minimize references to it within the film is conspicuous, but understandable.

Visions of Eight eschews the traditions of the typical Olympic documentary in favor of something more artistic and esoteric, a point that is made repeatedly in the special features of the film’s Criterion Collection release. As befits an event as prestigious as the Olympics, Criterion gives the film an excellent A/V presentation with a robust set of features. There’s a commentary track by The Ringer triumvirate of Chris Ryan, Amanda Dobbins, and Sean Fennessey that is breezy, informative, and inviting. It’s very akin to an episode of The Big Picture, the podcast hosted by Fennessey and Dobbins, with Ryan as a frequent guest. They’ve clearly done their homework, bringing interesting bits of trivia and insight to the table, while maintaining the casual camaraderie of the podcast. There is also an hour long documentary about the making of the film that features a wide range of participants, from people directly involved in making the film to sons of some key players to an Olympian historian, among others. The highlight of the documentary, and possibly the release, is footage from Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s uncompleted segment that focused on the presence of Black and African athletes in Munich. It’s a shame Sembene’s work wasn’t fully realized, but having it here helps add significant context and perspective to the Munich Games.

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