See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Olympia: Remember the Body

I think that probably the stupidest criticism of any movie I've seen in that of the reviewers who have claimed that Leni Riefensthal's movie Olympia is fascist because it glorifies physicality. I've actually seen that. I mean, the movie is a documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, obviously held in Nazi Germany three years before the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of war in Europe. Obviously, the Nazis are in full parade. and in fact the film was commissioned by Hitler to glorify his party and his people. And it's understandable if the modern viewer is made uncomfortable, even if fascinated, by the marching soldiers and the ever-present swastikas. The film features quite a few shots of a smiling, healthy-looking Hitler who was obviously enjoying himself, laughing and cheering the sports. Without the hindsight of history, and the images of the later, depraved and desperate-looking Hitler we're used to seeing, the film wouldn't be quite as... strange.

But it's a beautiful film. As I mentioned in the previous blog, Riefenstahl's movies were all commissioned directly by Hitler himself, and were made free of oversight of the Goebbels propaganda machine, which turned out a fairly lifeless product. At this point I've only seen the first part of the movie, which is quite lengthy and was released in two parts. Olympia: Festival of the Nations is a full two hours long and ends with the marathon. But it's another piece of Riefenstahl's genius. It opens with a lengthy video montage which begins with the ruins of the Parthenon and builds through classic statuary of the athletes of the Greek games, and movies to artful sequences with models representing the modern athletes (or maybe the athletes themselves, I'm not sure. Riefenstahl, an athlete herself who qualified to represent Germany in cross-country skiing but opted to make the film instead, appears uncredited as one of the nudes). I would've posted a video from YouTube, but the only version I could find was re-cut with Vangelis in lieu of the original music, and I think this art deserves to be seen, as made.

As everyone knows, the Nazi's intended this Olympics to serves as propaganda for the German race, and the irony is that it was the success of Black American athlete Jesse Owens which was its big story. The Germans do well, though. And I've seen nothing in the film derogatory of the other races involved. The marathon which closes part I was won by the Japanese, with a Brit in second. In view of Riefenstahl's work as a whole, I find it hard to believe that she was a racist. A thrall of Hitler, yes, as were many, until disillusioned by later events. But it's pretty clear to me that at least for the artist, this film - which is indeed art - was a celebration of the athletic celebration of the human body, a subject to which Riefenstahl was quite close, and that was for her, as it should be for all of us, a celebration of the human spirit.

I can't let this go without mentioning that this film, a good fifteen years before TV, was the advent of modern sports coverage. You really should see it, for its groundbreaking methods as well as for its artistic beauty, and for its fascination as history. It takes you into a part of the life and the soul of 1936 quite unlike anything else I've seen. And it leads me to want to investigate further certain oddities - why no Russian athletes? And anything that motivates us to reduce our ignorance is worth our attention.

And, to get back to that idiotic reviewer's comment with which I opened: It's a sad critique of our intelligentsia that someone could say that a celebration of athleticism is fascist. And it's said that anyone could hear this without being offended, as a human living in a human body. I'm no athlete, but I do work out frequently for the pure joy and immediateness of the human experience. I've been doing various forms of cardio since about 1986 when I was 28; at any age when a lot of people are starting to let themselves go to seed, I truly got in shape for the first time in my life, and experienced a level of consciousness, awareness and benign brain chemistry that I've tried to maintain, more successfully at some times than at others. When I've lost that practice, things go badly wrong. Just recently, I've thrown a good part of my energy in that direction, and with the resulting new clarity of mind, am not surprised that the rest of my life has improved. I've been doing yoga for about nine years, not because I'm good at it, but because I'm bad at it. It's the experience of being here, now, that comes from becoming our bodies rather than just inhabiting them, that makes the human experience a true one.

The longer I practice zazen, the more I am struck by the experience of no longer living in my head, but in my body and in the world around me. Personally, I think the value of a good exercise program, one which involves meaningful movement rather than just flailing to work the heart muscle, is underestimated in Zen, and that any good retreat should involve some yoga or some dance or some martial arts or step aerobics or something just to shake the head and body loose and keep us aware. Sadly, many of us who are drawn to philosophy and its kins are so dominated by logos, by the demon Language, that we can't experience ourselves and our worlds in any other way. If it were up to me, we'd throw the books in the fire and learn to tango. Haven't you had enough words?

I just noticed that Olympia: Festival of Beauty has gone, between yesterday and now, to "unavailable" on Netflix. The censorship continues; alas, I have to buy another beautiful film from Amazon.

So, if you can find a copy, go see this amazing work of art. And get some exercise. Truly live in yourself and in your world. Shut up. Touch something.

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