White Rock (1977)

Directed by Tony Maylam

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There’s not much to say about White Rock, a fun, silly and engaging arthouse film about the winter Olympics.  Like Koyaanisqatsi (1982) this is a film centered around fast-paced imagery and music.  It’s very experimental in that way, though White Rock offers some context for the action onscreen through host James Coburn.

Coburn walks us through each of these sports and tries them out himself.  He will address the camera while participating in the biathlon, playing hockey and just after riding in a bobsled, in a riveting opening sequence to the film.  He’s an everyman, in a sense, trying to convey to us what it’s like to be an olympian.

Many of these sequences are breathtaking and terrifying.  We get a sense of just how high up the downhill skiers are, and we’re made to feel the frightening, exciting speed of those bobsleds.

Most of the film is a series of abstract images of physical power and agility as well as the occasional glimpse of history or defeat.  The point is simply to get up close and personal with this action that is most often viewed from afar, whether onscreen or in person.

Coburn himself is occasionally funny, but for the most part he’s just there to wax poetic about what it takes to be an Olympian.  Though he may only have taken the job for the money, he does seem genuinely impressed by the things he’s there to discuss.  He breaks down these sports, if necessary, into layman terms, but it’s his active involvement in the various events that gets across the point of how difficult they are.  He gives some of his narration to the camera while nearly out of breath.

White Rock feels like a version of those NBC pre-taped specials they show every Olympics, though this seems an example of what those segments should be.  These 5 or so minute shorts are often a way to introduce us to an athlete in order to add a human element to the event we’re about to watch, and they hit all the familiar, sometimes melancholic beats about the struggle to make it to the Olympics.  Not to speak ill of these true human stories, but the ones that seem to be sought out often involve death or illness.  These are meant to give us a stronger rooting interest in what’s to follow.

In White Rock there is mention of some athletes, but the focus is always on the sport itself, rather than those who play.  It’s about the details of a blade cutting through ice, the wax applied to a ski for the slightest edge or the trembling grip on a rifle after skiing two kilometers.

The sport, this is saying, is impressive enough, and everyone sacrifices something for the pursuit of glory within these confines.  In this way White Rock is unsentimental about the individual human stories feeding into these events but far more romantic in its depiction of a global tradition that says something about human aspirations.

Up Next: Roma (2018), The Favourite (2018), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

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