Archive for April, 2008

Spirit of the Marathon

Sunday, April 13th, 2008—Film

Spirit of the Marathon (USA 2008, Documentary), Director: Jon Dunham

Ah, running. When I used to bike alongside my uncle as he trained for one of his many marathons, he would often wave and say hello to the other runners we passed. The first time it happened, I asked whether he knew the man. “No,” my uncle said. “Misery loves company.”

I haven’t run distances for several years, but when I did, I always loved how solitary it could be—running along the water, around trees in a wooded path, getting into a rhythm with only your thoughts to occupy you. But there is something unforgettable, and unmatched, about the feeling you get when you’re part of the crowd at the starting line. Several years ago, I ran the Toronto Marathon. I think there were only about 2,000 runners that year, but it was still incredible to feel the energy, nerves and excitement around me.

The 2005 LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, which is featured in Spirit of the Marathon, had over 33,000 entrants. The documentary follows the stories of six runners as they train for and compete in the marathon. It features record-holding, Olympic medalist runners who race to win; middle-aged and senior runners who smile and wave through the streets, making their way slowly but steadily to the finish line; and everyone in between.

One of the elite runners is Deena Kastor, 2004 Athens Olympic Marathon bronze medalist. Near the beginning of the film, she describes how she felt when she realized she was going to place on the podium. As we watch her run the last of the 42.2 kilometres, her eyes begin to well with tears. I can’t say she was the only one.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jerry Meyers, a man in his late sixties who leads the group of runners that includes, in his words, “the newest and slowest” of the marathoners. “People talk about the runner’s high,” he says. “The only runner’s high I’ve really felt is when I stopped running.” But he keeps going, determined to break his PB of six hours and change.

Spirit of the Marathonis aptly named because it truly captures the essence of the event. There’s the fierce competitiveness and awesome athleticism of the top finishers.Their dedication, determination, patience, perseverance—and willingness to suffer—is astonishing. Watching these runners haul ass throughout the entire course, pushing through what is often visible pain, is mind-blowing. It’s hard not to get up and race around the theatre when you’re watching that.

And then there’s the heart, soul and optimism of the people who enter as a tribute to someone they love, for a social activity, or to prove something to themselves. You see the triumphs that runners of all levels feel, whether it’s breaking the ribbon at the finish line or seeing their children waving from the sidelines.

There’s an incredible show of solidarity and support around the marathon. If you’ve ever run one, or even watched from the sidelines, you know that it’s impossible not to be moved by the humanity. As a one-time (so far) entrant and many-time spectator, I can tell you that Spirit of the Marathon does a beautiful job of reflecting that. 3, 2, 1, GO see the movie!

If you’re looking for other inspiring/sport/marathon movies, rent Saint Ralph, one of my favourite Canadian films. It’s about a young Catholic schoolboy named Ralph who decides that winning the 1954 Boston Marathon will be the miracle he needs to wake his mother from a coma. The final stretch of the marathon, played out to the tune of Gord Downie’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, is an amazing, stirring moment that’s reason enough to watch Saint Ralph. Also, the film is pretty funny; Ralph has a predilection for “self-abuse” in many interesting, inappropriate locations (climbing the ropes in gym class, anyone?).

I dedicate this post to GR. She won the passes that got us into the advance screening of Spirit of the Marathon. But more importantly, she’s gearing up for the Ottawa Marathon this May. (And did she ever feel guilty watching a movie about training for the marathon – after rushing straight from our running workout – only to eat a hot dog and fries for dinner.) GR, I hope the movie inspired you as much as it did me. And if not, I’ll be there screaming myself hoarse from the sidelines anyway. ;-)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon)

Sunday, April 6th, 2008—Film

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly(France 2007, Biography/Drama), Writer: Ronald Harwood; Director: Julian Schnabel

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on the autobiography of Elle France editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffered a stroke at the age of 43 and was left paralyzed everywhere except his left eye.

As imagined by Julian Schnabel—a prominent American painter and Academy-Award nominated filmmaker—Bauby’s world evolves from one seen through a tiny crack in the wall, to one full of wonder, pleasure and beauty, a world of infinite scope where anything is possible.

The film’s title refers to Bauby’s discordant outlooks on the world. At first, through narration that represents his thoughts, Bauby likens his situation to being trapped in a diving bell. But before long, he imagines that he is a butterfly, able to escape the confines of his cocoon and soar across the world, back and forth through time, from reality to fantasy and back again.

The transition occurs when Bauby remarkably announces that: “I decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed: my imagination and my memory.” From then on, we are treated to more of the world, as others see it and, more importantly, as Bauby imagines it.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is gorgeously filmed by acclaimed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who shot most of Steven Spielberg’s movies). The lighting; the hazy, surreal, tones; the subtle and frequent focus shifts… Kaminski does a phenomenal job of pulling the viewer into Bauby’s world.

Through his memory and fantasies, we learn of Bauby’s passions, regrets, mistakes and flaws. We see his devoted but estranged wife by his bedside, reading to him, sharing her life with him still, while the woman he left her for is too childish and self-absorbed to visit him.

We also get a strong sense of his personality. He was a funny man. When a telephone repairman jokes about Bauby being a heavy breather, the speech pathologist, Henriette, (played by wonderful Quebec actor Marie-Josée Croze) is deeply offended and tells the repairman off. But we hear Bauby’s internal laughter, and his thoughts: “Henri, you have no sense of humour.”

I really loved this film. Visually, it’s a work of art. Spiritually, it’s touching, moving, upsetting. It makes you appreciate the potential we have in our own lives, seeing what Bauby was capable of with only his left eye and his mind’s eye. It also sheds light on people’s tremendous capacity for love and forgiveness.

The incredible part is that this is a true story. After learning to communicate by blinking, the real-life Bauby ultimately decides to “write” his memoirs with the help of an unfathomably patient transcriptionist. Slowly, painstakingly, he recounts his story in detail—one letter, one blink, one wing beat at a time.