An Olympic Omnibus: International Competition, Cooperation, and Politics in Visions of Eight

Article excerpt

BECAUSE the inauguration of the modern Olympic games-founded by social theorist and rénovateur Baron Pierre de Coubertin and held in Athens in 1896-roughly coincides with the birth of cinema, it should come as no surprise that the two served as mutually enriching sources of dramatic material throughout the twentieth century. From Leni Riefenstahl's poetic (some would say fascistic) record of the 1936 Berlin games, Olympia (Olympische Spiele; 1938), to such cinematic and televisual biopics as Jim Thorpe: All-American (1951) and The Jesse Owens Story (1984), the Olympics have inspired numerous documentary and fiction films around the world. Such works have in their own way contributed to the popularity of the quadrennial event as well as to the global proliferation of its governing ideals, thus promoting international camaraderie, the physical health of iconic hero-figures, and the solidarity of humankind. Although Riefenstahl's two-part Olympia is often singled out as a sensual celebration of the human form in flight and-despite its links to the Nazi Party-is generally thought to be "the definitive cinematic treatment of the Games,"1 it nevertheless falls short of the pyrotechnics on display in what is perhaps the most unusual of Olympic documentaries: Visions of Eight (München 1972-8 berühmte Regisseure sehen die Spiele derXX Olympiade; 1973).

On the surface, this multi-episode, feature-length film produced by legendary documentarian David L. Wolper and Stan Margulies (then-vice-president of Wolper Productions) appears to be curiously "empty," at both the diegetic and extradiegetic levels, insofar as it captures only fleeting, impressionistic glimpses of the festival held in Munich (from August 26 to September 11, 1972) and furthermore only begrudgingly alludes to the deadly act of terrorism which capped the Olympics that year. Nevertheless, as an omnibus film comprised of eight discrete yet connected sections, each averaging ten minutes in length, Visions of Eight is in fact a very "full" evocation of the Olympic experience; for it manages to convey both the personal and collective aspirations of the participants involved (athletes as well as filmmakers) through a narrative form naturally amenable to political allegory and the interrelated themes of competition and cooperation. Because this multinational, multi-director film foregrounds the spirit of competition and cooperation so intrinsic to the Olympic ideal, it provides an illuminating case study for charting out the ways in which the narratological genre of the omnibus film not only problematizes conventional paradigms of authorship and nationhood, but also supplies a textual correlative to the sometimes contradictory modes of participation inscribed in sporting events. Before examining the film and its historical context, it will be helpful to underline the importance of Wolper to the project, not only as a producer overseeing the day-to-day details of this logistical nightmare, but also as someone whose diverse filmography attests to a consciousness of major world events.

A Producer's Package

Visions of Eight should be situated not only within the historical context of documentaries about the Olympics, but also within the narratological context of the episode film, which had come into vogue in the years immediately preceding its 1973 theatrical release. Although there had been dozens of such works produced throughout the world during the first five decades of the twentieth century (multi-director omnibus films such as La Vie est à nous [1936], an agitprop joint effort by members of the Popular Front group Ciné Liberté; as well as single-director anthologies like Roberto Rossellini's Paisà [1946]), it was not until the 1960s that the episode film became a marked component of national cinemas in Europe and Asia. For it was during that decade that such famous and diverse examples of this narratological genre as Teen Kanya (1961), Boccaccio '7 (1962), Paris vu par. …