Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Books I Read in 2015

Please excuse my recent lag in posting. Maybe I've just been gearing up for this goddamn marathon of a thing that always drains all of my strength and will and happiness! But I'm determined to see this through. I've already uploaded all the pictures.

For those of you who don't know, this is my Best Books of the Year post, and the way I do it is, I don't focus on new books. I don't read enough new books in a year to make up a list (though a couple that I did read can be found below) so I just choose the best and/or most interesting books of whatever sort, or written in whatever year, that I read in the last twelve months. Some of these I've written about on the blog, most I haven't. Also, there are far more than ten, so it's not a top ten list, and for the most part these aren't ranked, until you get to the last four, which I feel safe in saying were the four best books I read in 2015. Okay, here we go. Enjoy it, you bunch of assholes!

The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis - It's fitting that Tevis is best known as the author of the novels The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, because his six novels are split evenly between three works of science fiction (the other two being Mockingbird and The Steps of the Sun) and three more-or-less realist novels that revolve around the world of obsessive, destructive professional sports, or games. Pool in The Hustler and The Color of Money, and in The Queen's Gambit, chess. The story follows chess prodigy Beth Harmon from the age of eight to eighteen. She learns chess from the janitor of the orphanage where she lives until early adolescence, by which point she's already developed a taste for opiates. But she's an ingenious chess player, and at times disturbingly mature as she herself gets her professional chess career rolling, and learns, or tries, to control her addictions.

Less a plotted novel than an unsentimentally precise chronicle of ten years in the life of Beth Harmon, spanning from Kentucky to Mexico to New York to Russia, the crux of the character, and of the novel, comes about a third of the way in, as Beth, at thirteen, is blasting her way through her first professional tournament:

An hour later she drew Goldmann and Board Three. She walked into the tournament room at exactly eleven, and the people standing stopped talking when she came in. Everyone looked at her. She heard someone whisper, "Thirteen fucking years old," and immediately the thought came into her mind, along with the exultant feeling the whispered voice had given her: I could have done this at eight.

The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff - Wolff is one of the great living American writers. He's known mainly for his short fiction, at which he excels beyond any contemporaneous writer I can think of, and his memoirs, which in full disclosure I have not yet read. But there's one great novella that has sort of fallen through the cracks, this one, The Barracks Thief, from 1984, that people should seek out. In about 90 pages, Wolff takes three paratroopers from a stupidly brave moment of bonding to a time when one of them reveals his weakness and sadness and illness and potential for violence, and portrays it all like, from the point of view of an outsider, as just something that happened. That's what Wolff can do -- he can write about devastating things as though they're just something that happened, and make them no less awful for that.

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh - Discussed here.

The Queen of the Night by Marc Behm - One of seven novels written by Behm, The Queen of the Night isn't exactly what you might expect from a guy who boasts writing credits on both Help! and Charade. This novel would, perhaps, make more sense coming from Christopher Isherwood, if Isherwood had been a lesbian writing pulp fiction in the 1970s. And maybe not even then. At any rate, what this thing is, is a novel that takes its lead character, a beautiful German woman who early in her life begins promiscuously engaging in lesbian sex while also reluctantly hitching her star, for pragmatic reasons, to the rising Nazi party, from Weimar Berlin to the end of it all. She claims reluctance anyway, but she's not at all a wonderful person; here and there she commits terrible crimes that she justifies to herself. She hates the Nazis and she's not anti-Semitic, so she's in the clear.

The novel is full of sex, and the violence reaches a level of brutality that reminded me a little bit of Kosinski's The Painted Bird. Not to compare the two, because let's not go nuts, but The Queen of the Night is both extreme pulp exploitation, and a rather serious and well-written moral novel. It's also crazier than a shithouse rat.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - This story of two sisters, Lucille and the narrator, Ruthie, who are raised first by their grandmother and then, finally, by their deeply eccentric aunt, after their mother drops them off and intentionally drives her car off a bridge, is the premiere masterpiece by Robinson, who has had a Malick-like approach to writing fiction. Housekeeping was published in 1980, and she didn't publish another novel until Gilead in 2004 (she did write and publish non-fiction in the interim, and like Malick her production has picked up a bit lately). It was her first, and she was 37 when she wrote it, which isn't the same thing as writing a book this exquisite when you're 21. But what can match having written a novel this exquisite at 37? Or any age? Ironically, words almost can't do it justice. Everything you've heard about it is true.

The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin - This is the first book I read in 2015. The novel, which Werner Herzog loosely adapted into his film Cobra Verde, struck me as so masterful almost a year ago that I wondered if any novel I would read over the next twelve months could possibly match it. Obviously some have, but this is writing of such simple beauty and violence that I can recall the impact it had on me one year ago and some sixty books later. If you aspire to write prose, what Chatwin was able to accomplish with so few words isn't just humbling -- it's humiliating.

My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes - At the beginning of this novel, our unnamed narrator, a screenwriter, is at a party he's not enjoying, so he goes outside and sees a beautiful young woman walk into the ocean. He saves her, and becomes linked to the pitiful and predictable end of her Hollywood fantasy. She lives in a nothing apartment, she drinks way too much, she tried to kill herself. To the uninitiated, this sounds, I'd wager, pretty run-of-the-mill. Except that Hayes, himself a screenwriter (and check out these credits: Paisan, Clash By Night, The Left Hand of God) was, and pardon me for doubling up on the word "writer" in this sentence, I can find no way around it, a goddamn writer. I just opened up My Face for the World to See, and this is literally what I found:

Failure was always present; it changed its aspect, it acquired new forms. Did one ever go from success to success? But one went, simultaneously, from failure to failure. What was it that I'd once thought intolerable? In a few years, it had become tolerable. The reasons for living changed. At the end, the great pang would be that death deprived one of the very, very simplest things: the simpleness of sight, the mechanical marvel of breathing. Ah, she mustn't feel the way she did. Nothing catastrophic had really happened. What one was good at didn't always and continually give one pleasure. Appetites died; ambitions expired; desire put on a different skin. She'd see, if she'd only give it time.

Sweetheart, Sweetheart by Bernard Taylor - The horror boom of the 1970s and 80s allowed a lot of unforgivable shit to get published, because then, as now, horror sold, no matter how awful it was. But it let in a lot of great fiction too (would T.E.D. Klein have ever enjoyed mass publication without it?), and one of the writers whose cult reputation following that boom has most intrigued me is Bernard Taylor. This is his signature novel, and it couldn't be more classical in structure or concept: as the book opens, David Warwick, and Englishman living in the US, has recently learned of the death of his brother. This happened very soon after the brother got married to the mysterious Helen, who herself has just died. So David travels to rural England to deal with the estate, his estranged father, and the mysteries surrounding the deaths of Helen and his brother.

Sounds good and all, but what distinguishes Sweetheart, Sweetheart from the mass of forgotten mass market paperbacks with skulls and shit on the cover is a genuine talent for writing prose, just for starters, and an absolute control of his story so that the casual pacing eventually reveals itself to be not so much languid as a depiction of a slow descent into Hell.

Albert Angelo by B. S. Johnson - At this point, B. S. Johnson must be best known as the subject of Jonathan Coe's biography Like a Fiery Elephant. That book won awards and such, and is considered a masterpiece of its genre, but Johnson's own writing is essentially unknown. He wrote seven novels, few of which are still in print, and used copies of his first and last are going for exorbitant amounts of money. You can find this one, though, his second, written when he was 31 (Johnson was dead by 40) about an aspiring architect and, in the meantime, substitute teacher, much of this novel dealing with the horrors and dissatisfactions of teaching children. Johnson was, I guess I'd have to say, "post-modern," though this implies that Johnson was thinking along those lines. Maybe he was -- there's one bit where there's holes in the pages, so you see through to a passage later on -- but I doubt it was so conscious. The phrase "like a fiery elephant" actually comes from this novel, and it's pulled from a long section of, essentially, teacher evaluations the protagonist has allowed his impossibly difficult students to write up, without fear of punishment. And you wonder if he's the problem. You also wonder, or I did, by the end, what's really been going on here, and I do wonder if David Foster Wallace ever read B. S. Johnson. He must have. I don't know of any other writer who could, like DFW could, say to the reader "We both know what's going on here" without finally undercutting the emotion at all.

The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane - Discussed, along with Sloane's To Walk the Night, here.

The Whites by Richard Price - I fear that the strangeness of this being a full-on Richard Price novel that has somehow been credited to "Harry Brandt" (here's the story) might have distracted some from the fact that this is, quite simply, a terrific Richard Price novel. Price has been writing crime fiction since his 1992 masterpiece Clockers, and The Whites shouldn't be approached as a departure. The story about a group of cops who each has a criminal in their past they couldn't put behind bars, and who each harbors a desire for some kind of social revenge, a balance of justice, sounds potentially like pulp -- and it is, but can't it be more? Price shows that it can be (there are a lot of ways The Whites is more complex than I've described), and that while being more than pulp, it can still be pulp. One of the best pure reads, as well as one of the best novels, of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns - I believe this is the third time Barbara Comyns has made one of these year-end lists. There's a reason for that. This one was discussed here.

Neighbors by Thomas Berger - The primary travesty of John G. Avildsen's atrocious 1981 adaptation of Berger's novel -- about two sets of neighbors, one normal, I guess you'd say, and one abnormal, I guess you'd say, who spiral into a Kafkaesque nightmare comedy -- is the way it turns chicken when it comes to the ending. I'm not going to ruin it here, but the book, which is a relentlessly paced comedy of utter absurdity, frustration, hypocrisy, and lunacy, is a book that once or twice tested my patience for absurdity, frustration, hypocrisy, and lunacy. When I realized that the story took place over the course of about 24 hours, I did honestly question Berger's ability to sustain it. But of course Berger knew better than me, and Neighbors is quite propulsive. It's that ending, though...that's the horror, and the mystery. That's what makes it really linger.

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard - If you're a fan of the horror writer Thomas Ligotti, you may know that he considers Thomas Bernhard one of his great literary influences. Woodcutters is not a horror novel, but in its eerily mad depiction of a dinner party that recalls both Beckett and Bunuel, a certain disturbance is achieved. There's no violence, but there is a lot of contempt, as well as general disgust. But should the reader side with the narrator or against him? The disgust pours from him, but what is he? "What" as opposed to "who." He just thinks, sitting in the wing chair.

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter - I'm pretty sure I bought this novel almost entirely because it was a reprint by NYRB Classics that sounded like something I'd like. Subsequently finding it mentioned in Read 'Em and Weep, Barry Gifford's collection of short essays about his favorite novels, and being urged to read it by my friend Glenn Kenny, convinced me, like a year or two later, to finally check it out. And brother, I wanna tell you. It's similar to Tevis's The Queen's Gambit in that it doesn't feel plotted, as such (although I'm sure it was), but instead follows the lives of a few characters to some logical point -- death, or otherwise. In this case, it's primarily two men, Jack Levitt, a white man, and Billy Lancing, a light-skinned black man, who meet as irresponsible, stupid children (another connection to Tevis is they meet at a pool hall, and Lancing is a great pool player) whose dumb behavior, spurred by desperation and dissatisfaction and fear, eventually land them in prison. But the two lives meet and split apart and meet again -- that Jack and Billy aren't chained together the whole novel is part of the power of Hard Rain Falling, and part of its brutal reality, as is the love they find together in prison, and the strange aftermath of it all. It's a novel that is, as they used to say, rich in incident.

Watership Down by Richard Adams - Can you believe it took me this long? Discussed, briefly, here. But really, it knocked me out.

Dark Reflections by Samuel R. Delany - One of the few truly unique writers in America today is Samuel R. Delany. I don't really have anywhere close to the space necessary to go into why that is, but if you don't know, he's moved from one of the most preternaturally gifted science fiction writers of the New Wave era, and has become since then one of the truly curious and original social and critical figures in American literature, writing whole books analyzing one Thomas M. Disch short story, for one example, and writing horrifying pornographic nightmares (or dreams, let's leave that to him) for another. This novel, from 2007, is probably about as mainstream as Delany gets these days. It's the story of a poet, Arnold Hawley -- black, and gay, though so shy and worried about sex as to be almost asexual -- who when we meet him has won an award. He's also a professor, but his income is so slight that the monetary side of the poetry award makes enough of a difference that he can, for a time, decide to see a movie without worrying about the cost. At another time, he sees one of his poetry books in a used bookstore and thinks that someone "could live without it."

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge - This one's a bit hard to talk about. It sort of needs to just be read. All I'll say is that it's a withering, even frightening black comedy about two women who live together, and who both work at a bottle factory, the employees and managers of which plan an outing. From there, you're on your own. It's now considered one of the great British novels of the 20th Century, and it lost the 1974 Booker Prize, which is bullshit.

Fat City by Leonard Gardner - Incredible stuff. Discussed here.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - This new novel by the author of The Remains of the Day was one of the most anticipated books of 2015 and was met mostly with shrugs and dismissal. As I recall, Joyce Carol Oates, Fine Purveyor of Fucked Up Opinions, used her review in the New York Review of Books to employ the word "awkward" as often as she could without ever explaining what she meant by that. My own guess is, nobody who was eager for a new novel by Ishiguro was expecting a barely-post-Arthurian fantasy about, not the horrors of war, but the sadness of war, as well as the sadness of old age. I bow to no one in my love of The Remains of the Day, and I've read all but two of Ishiguro's other books, so I consider it significant, at least as far as my own relation to the thing goes, when I say that The Buried Giant is a beautiful novel, every bit the equal of his early masterpiece.

Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis - I love Kingsley Amis so much I named a cat after him, and this might just be his masterpiece. Discussed here, along with Amis's also outstanding novella Ending Up.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Capsule Reviews and Whatnot

A couple interesting titles are being released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and while I don't personally believe they are a suitable double-feature pairing, you could actually watch them separately, on different days. That would be fine.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (d. F. W. Murnau) - It's often pointed out that Charlie Chaplin was so devoted to the form of the silent film that even after it became clear that sound was taking over, he stubbornly (for a little while anyway) continued the way he always had with silent-in-the-sound-era films like Modern Times. That came out in 1936, which is pretty impressive. But in 1931, which was the year of Wellman's The Public Enemy and Whale's Frankenstein and Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (and okay yes, Chaplin's silent City Lights, so fine, he wins), another giant of the silent era, F. W. Murnau, defied the future and released Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, a film about romance and superstition and tragedy set on and around the island of Bora Bora. Who knows how far Murnau, one of the true geniuses from the beginnings of cinema, would have pushed this resistance? Tabu was released in August of '31. By that time, Murnau had already died in a car accident at the age of 42.

Which as an opening to a review of Tabu is kind of a bummer, but not inappropriate because...well, never mind, I guess. The film is pretty goddamn absorbing, though. Murnau developed it with Robert J. Flaherty, director and, let's face it, creator of Nanook of the North, who served on Tabu as co-producer with Murnau and David Flaherty, and as co-screenwriter with Murnau. And for I'd say about half of the film Tabu more closely resembles Nanook than it does, let's say, Tartuffe. The plot is very simple: a strapping native boy (Matahi) falls in love with a lovely young girl (Reri). All seems well until the girl is deemed "tabu" when a native chief demands a replacement for the sacred virgin who recently died. Therefore, to appease the gods, the girl must not be touched. To touch her is to die, but the two young people remain in love, and, perhaps, don't think too much of what anybody else deems sacred.

A few things are particularly striking about Tabu. First, the early section, which made me wonder if Flaherty was behind the camera, is a wonderful, and wonderfully pleasant, bit of probably-bullshit anthropology. The islanders effortless navigation of waterfalls, for example, makes it quite easy to buy Matahi and others as true aboriginals, and true non-actors -- Reri, even boasting the real name of Anne Chevalier, only made two other films, and Matahi never made another. The second really striking thing, and I'm not sure I've ever seen this before, is that while in Tabu Murnau does employ intertitles, they're always in the form of something a character has written: a letter, a note, a journal entry, etc. So Tabu is, in fact, an epistolary silent film. How rare is this? I don't know, my knowledge of the silent era is not what I'd like it to be, but I found this a quite effective and, somehow, always organic. Even with this conceit, the vast majority of the storytelling is purely, precisely visual.

Then, finally, there's the ending, which I won't describe, but I have to say that it's one of the most cold-blooded things I've ever seen. Partly because since, these are non-actors, the absence of emotion on the face of one of the people involved is almost like an insult. On top of the rest of it. This is my fifth Murnau film, and it's the fifth one I thought was entirely terrific.

The Kindergarten Teacher (d. Nadav Lapid) - There's this critic -- I'm not going to say who it is because I think I've brought him (or her!) up a few times and I don't want it to seem like I'm in a one-way feud with this guy (or lady!). But so this guy wrote some comments about this film from Israeli director Nadav Lapid, the gist of which were "This film is very weird and therefore bad." Which is not to imply that the critic has never liked strange films, because I know for a fact that he has. What I can't understand is why the strangeness of this film (or the unwillingness of critics who've praised it to mention how strange it is, something else that seems to have bothered him) should be a mark against it.

Perhaps it's because Nadav Lapid never lets the fundamentally bizarre nature of The Kindergarten Teacher to announce itself as such. The premise doesn't even sound that weird, though I do think it sounds almost unignorably intriguing: a teacher of five-year-olds named Nira (Sarit Larry) one day takes particular notice of one of her students. His name is Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), and he's picked up every day not by a parent but by a nanny, named Miri (Ester Rada). Nira learns from Miri, and soon witnesses herself, Yoav's preternatural gift for poetry. Two or three times a week, this little boy will stop and announce "I have a poem, I have a poem," and then pace back and forth, reciting, evidently off the top of his head, poems of astonishing sophistication, abstraction, and, well, genuine poetry (whether or not you like the film's poems or not is, I would argue, thoroughly irrelevant; for myself, they left my head pretty quickly as the action moved past each one, but I wouldn't mind hearing them again, or reading them). Nira is herself an aspiring poet, and she becomes obsessed with Yoav. She attends a poetry class every week or so, and she begins taking Yoav's poems with her and claiming them as her own. However, it doesn't seem that she's doing this to take credit (not everyone in the class likes them), but rather merely to hear other reactions to this poetry that so astounds her, but which only she, of those who know that Yoav is behind them, takes seriously.

But the poetry class is just a subplot. The Kindergarten Teacher is kind of a film comprised of subplots -- among the others is one about Nira's relationship to her husband and son, her relationship with and mistrust of Miri, and her attempt (I suppose this would be the main plot, though it doesn't really feel like that) to become Yoav's guardian (though he has a father, who is present) and, maybe some day, literary agent. Though, again, it's not the money she's after. What is she after?

That this is never specifically answered is to the film's credit. Nira couldn't tell you the answer herself. That Yoav's talent and strange behavior -- that pacing, and "I have a poem!" -- is merely presented gives The Kindergarten Teacher an otherworldly air, but it's presented with more or less straightforward naturalism. The effect achieved, for me anyway, was to make it seem as though I was suddenly witnessing something that I truly could not explain or understand, but which I might conceivably witness. Not a ghost or an angel, but something completely possible within all natural laws, but which, if I saw it before me, would nevertheless set me back a few steps.

That's not such a bad effect for a filmmaker to aim for, though I do think I'm being fairly reductive in my description of Lapid's film. But it sure did strike me. There's other stuff here, too, like this odd approach to the camera, which only pops up a handful of times but which seems to indicate that there might be a camera among the characters, which I'm not entirely sure what to do with. However, I'd argue that there is what I suppose someone less impressed with The Kindergarten Teacher might call a lack of shape, or maybe imaginative discipline. And I'll even say that right near the end, there's a bit of plot that demands that we accept that a common, everyday object works differently than we all know it does. This bugged me a tiny bit. However, I refuse to nitpick to death a film that was good enough to be something I'd never seen before.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The World's Full of 'Em

If the index at the back of Burning the Days, novelist James Salter's 1997 memoir, is anything to go by, the film for which the Occasional Screenwriter-wing of Salter's talent is best known is never mentioned by name in the book. Nor is its director, or any of the actors who appear in it, save one, Robert Redford, the film's star. However, Salter (who just died this past June, just nine days after his 90th birthday) does describe the movie, which is set in the world of competitive skiing in the lead-up to the Olympics:

The film was meant from the beginning to be about someone who was the opposite of that nearly vanished figure, the athlete who was supremely talented yet modest, who had the virtues of both strength and humility. Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish runner, a legendary champion...had always been an idol of mine. I pictured an old Nurmi, though knowing nothing about his personality, as a coach who had worked for years to have one of his racers win a gold in the Olympics, and who finally found the chance but with an individual he disliked, even despised, a crude, self-centered Redford. Athletes like this existed but perhaps not coaches like Nurmi.

This sounds very much like Downhill Racer, the film in question that finally was made in 1969. Starring Redford as David Chappellet and Gene Hackman as Claire, the coach. Ostensibly, Salter had been hired to adapt a skiing novel called The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall, who is now probably most famous for writing the cult classic Western novel Warlock. Anyway, as I understand it, everything about that novel was tossed, save the setting and two-thirds of the title. Whatever leeway Salter was given by producer Richard Gregson and eventual director Michael Ritchie (it had already intriguingly passed through the hands of Roman Polanski) I couldn't say, but the script Salter finally wrote, or at least the version of that script that made it to the screen, bears some resemblance in tone and in the depiction of Chappellet to his first two novels. The Hunters, from 1957, is about an ace American fighter pilot serving in the Korean War who, when he joins a new squadron, suddenly finds himself unable to live up to his reputation. His 1961 novel, originally called The Arm of Flesh but later heavily revised in 2000 and renamed Cassada, after the lead character, is about another fighter squadron, but now during peacetime, and stationed in West Germany. Unlike the protagonist in The Hunters, the new pilot joining the squadron in Cassada is a bad pilot who will never be good. Indeed, in terms of attitude and story, Downhill Racer's Chappellet comes much closer to Cleve Connell in The Hunters, because both men share expertise. Yet in my memory there's a connection between Robert Cassada and Chappellet in that Cassada is oblivious to the fact that as a pilot he's hopeless, and Chappellet doesn't understand that he's hopeless as a person. Or perhaps he doesn't give a shit.

I'll go ahead and say now that Downhill Racer, which has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, is an exceptional film. It's quite unlike any other sports film I can think of, even though the plot does build, as almost all sports films do, to the Big Race (or Game, etc.). It's remarkable how quiet the film is. Save for a handful of scenes, much of it plays without dialogue or with only very incidental dialogue. There's a lot of chatter, but often you can pay attention to it or not. It's all about Redford showing up in the snowy mountains of Austria, to replace a skier on the American team who's been injured, and freezing everything that wasn't frozen already. His quiet arrogance and even nearly silent petulance slowly casts a pall over the team, as it outrages Hackman's Eugene Claire (Hackman, as you might assume, is ridiculously, effortlessly good here). But though Chappellet initially struggles, his genius on the slopes soon becomes undeniable. So now what? There's one on every team, just about.

It would be hard to argue, as early in his long career as Downhill Racer is, that this is at least close to career-best work from Robert Redford, not least because it's one of the very few roles, and performances, that doesn't beg the audience to love him. Anyone who complains about the cold remove of Stanley Kubrick might want to take a gander at not only what Ritchie and Salter pull off here, but Redford as well. You don't need to wish to project, at least through your films, a God-like indifference, as Kubrick seemed to want to do, to appear as someone whose total lack of warmth sets them apart from most of the rest of the human population. You merely have to behave as if no one else matters. On the surface, it would appear that Redford had to do very little to get this across, and in fact maybe he didn't have to do anything. It's a very difficult performance to break down because the character never has a "big" moment. If that's the case, the Redford (and Ritchie) deserve the credit for understanding how little needed to be done. But watch Redford in the few scenes set in Idaho, where Chappellet is from, and where he returns during a break in tournaments. He visits his father (Walter Stroud), and the apple doesn't seem to have fallen far from the tree by the way, and the two of them have a depressingly unfamilial conversation, if you can even call it that, while Chappellet sits at the kitchen table eating Ritz crackers out of the box, and he visits his old girlfriend who doesn't quite seem to realize that he doesn't give a damn about her, until after they've had sex one more time, by which point you have to hope that for her the penny finally drops. But anyway, look at Redford here. How much does he do, and how much does he communicate about Chappellet? If your answer to both questions is "Very little," I would say "Okay, but how much is there to say about Chappellet?" Very little.

A fair chunk of Downhill Racer (though not as much as I'd remembered from my first viewing of it a few years back) is given over to a romance that Chappellet strikes up with Carole Stahl, the assistant of a manufacturer of skis who, once Chappellet's talent becomes apparent, is looking to him for sponsorship. What's interesting about this is that it both humanizes Chappellet, for brief periods anyway, while ultimately revealing how truly unpleasant a man he is. This is achieved not through any grand act, either. It's possible, I think to view the character as a sociopath, but the way that condition is currently understood, at least by Hollywood, the evidence for this must come through some act of violence, or extreme cruelty of some sort. But that's not where Downhill Racer leaves the relationship. I don't know whose idea it was, Ritchie's or Salter's, but the mutual "fuck you" that closes out this subplot is sublime. And by doing almost nothing other than turning his eyes into ice chips, Redford becomes a man you wouldn't even want to talk to about the weather (which is always cold anyway.

I've said little, too little, about Michael Ritchie, who creates a mood and atmosphere in Downhill Racer that drew me in, in the same way sports movies almost always do, while making that place I've been drawn into, by the end, almost completely off-putting. If this is the guy I have to follow and root for, and if this is all going to revolve around him, then no thanks. Downhill Racer is all white and blue and Scandinavian, but the fire you might expect to find when you retreat from the cold isn't there. The guy who's the asshole is the one who matters and who we have to pay attention to and who, pretty soon, will be calling the shots. Because he's the best.

The ending offers a further chill. Judging from the section in Burning the Days that Salter devotes to it (which is brief, and seems to have been included at all because Salter knew Redford for a while), it's not Salter's ending. He describes the ending he intended, and it wouldn't have been a bad one. But somebody, Ritchie I suppose, tweaked Salter's idea just a bit. But by "just a bit" I sort of mean "changed it completely." Yet not fundamentally. I prefer the ending the film landed on. It's a little bit mysterious, in a way, and in some way, however briefly, it robs sports films, and maybe sports, of their glory.